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A Man Called Hawk

  Cold Service
Robert B. Parker
G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2005
Rating: 3.6

Posted: May 12, 2005

By Kevin Forest Moreau

As the increasingly execrable Lethal Weapon movies have proven, it's hard to keep the protagonist of a long-running series fresh. Whereas Mel Gibson's Martin Riggs was a sympathetic character in the first film, by the fourth installment he was an unlikable jackass whose once-manic personality had devolved into a penchant for cruel practical jokes designed to humiliate his victims (including his own long-suffering partner).

The prolific Robert B. Parker, who's been writing the Spenser series of detective novels for more than 30 years, has basically stopped trying to keep that titular character "fresh." Spenser hasn't undergone much in the way of growth or development in many years. But Parker does seem cognizant of the fact that you have to at least give the appearance of growth every now and then. So in lieu of further developing Spenser, with Cold Service he does the next best thing: He attempts to humanize, however slightly, Spenser's cold-eyed, contract-killer best friend, Hawk.

In Cold Service, Hawk is shot and undergoes a long rehabilitative process -- much as Spenser did in 1998's Sudden Mischief. (He was also shot in 1984's Valediction, but we didn't get to watch that recovery process play out.) Because Hawk has seemed a bit too perfect in his abilities, this debilitating and rebuilding process is a welcome wrinkle. To see the impervious Hawk not only display physical vulnerability but even allude to something approaching emotional vulnerability is a huge deal in the Parker universe.

Of course, Parker can only go up to a certain point and no further. Hawk doesn't actually change as a result of his experience, except in the short term when we witness him openly relying on Spenser for physical support. Predictably, Parker instead uses Hawk's condition as an excuse to engage in one of his favorite literary pursuits, which is having his characters explain their complex moral codes (or, more to the point, explaining why they don't like talking about said codes). Spenser helpfully explains to Hawk's girlfriend -- a tough, likable thoracic surgeon frustrated by his emotional detachment -- why he must act the way he does. (Parker covers this terrain so often these days that one wonders who, exactly, he's trying to convince -- us, or himself.)

It's disappointing that Parker doesn't take the leap and allow Hawk to actually question his own actions (although a couple of awkward conversations come close). Still, Hawk's predicament, and the extent to which he's revealed as something beyond the near-superheroic figure he often portrays, is progress of a sort.

Less so is the plot of Cold Service, which echoes a couple of recent Spenser adventures -- notably 2001's questionable Potshot, which was almost laughable for Parker's blatant attempt to insert his beloved characters into a modern-day Western tale. Cold Service follows Hawk's quest for vengeance at the hands of his would-be assassins, a band of Ukranian mobsters in the employ of one Boots Podolak, who runs the nearby town of Marshport. Spenser, Hawk and a couple of cronies more or less end up laying siege to Podolak's empire, which comes across as faintly ridiculous. (It doesn't help that Podolak is presented as a somewhat ineffectual buffoon.)

Further echoing the aforementioned Sudden Mischief, one of the pair's collaborators is the painstakingly enigmatic Grey Man, who shot Spenser in that book. Everything about The Grey Man's appearance here rings false, especially when he assumes control of the town late in the book. But Parker isn't aiming for any kind of believability; he's writing to please himself and those longtime fans who savor every return appearance, every in-joke, every instance of tough old guys bonding with one another as they go about proving their masculinity.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterwork
 4.0-4.9: Great read
 3.0-3.9: Well done
 2.0-2.9: Ordinary
 1.1-1.9: Sub par
 0.0-1.0: Horrendous

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