Pub Day Repost: Robert B. Parker’s Grudge Match by Mike Lupica: Sunny Randall’s Forced to Work for an Enemy as Lupica Settles into the Series

Grudge Match

Robert B. Parker’s Grudge Match

by Mike Lupica
Series: Sunny Randall, #8

eARC, 210 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020

Read: April 21-22, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


As I said last year when Lupica debuted his continuation of the Sunny Randall books with Blood Feud, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Sunny and was ambivalent with the series re-starting. However, I enjoyed Blood Feud (although comments on my post said I came across as lukewarm, I didn’t mean to) and really thought that Lupica had a good take on the character.

Thankfully, we don’t have a sophomore slump here, I think Lupica’s feeling more comfortable in these shoes and delivered something a little more ambitious. Tony Marcus begins this book by describing the best way to hold a grudge—and then goes on to point out all the reasons Sunny has recently given him to hold one against her. If nothing else is clear from this, you do not want Marcus harboring anything for you. He does this just to impress upon Sunny that his offer of employment is something she should strongly consider.

Tony’s lover, confidante, right hand, and former employee has left him. Without warning, without notice—and Tony wants her back. He’s not that concerned for her safety, he’s a little concerned that she defected to some new competition for his turf, but mostly he just wants to know what happened and how he can win her back. Sunny (and this reader) is fairly convinced by Marcus—she doesn’t think Marcus wants to hurt her, he just wants her back. Sunny hems and haws, but agrees to take on the case—for her own safety and because she’s able to convince herself that she’s actually working for Lisa Morneau, not Marcus.

This puts her on a path to explore the world of prostitution in Boston—this isn’t the first time Sunny’s done something like this, but this time she’s working for Marcus, which opens a few more doors. She meets with Lisa’s closest friend, someone she helped get out of the life, as well as former colleagues. Sunny also has several run-ins with Marcus’s new competitor, who seems like he’s wanting to start a war with him.

At some point, the trail leads to Paradise—leading to Sunny meeting up with Jesse Stone. The two banter and flirt a bit, and Jesse offers some help on the Paradise front. It was nice to see them together again (I’ve often thought the best use of the Sunny character was as Stone’s associate).

Now, it’s not long before the search for Lisa results in murder—and Lisa herself is frightened, sure that she’s next. Which drives Sunny to start to look into why would someone want to threaten her. What does Lisa know that makes her dangerous? And can Sunny use this knowledge to save Lisa and prevent the gang war on the verge of erupting?

While that’s going on Richie’s (other) ex-wife moves back to Boston with their son, Richard, and now wants Richie to play the role in Richard’s life that she’d previously blocked him from. Richie responds as any father worthy of the title would—he’s overjoyed and turns his life upside down to accommodate that without a second thought. Sunny recognizes that this is the way he should react, but can’t quite get on board with it herself in the same way—for a combination of reasons, some petty, some understandable (maybe some fit under both columns). It’s a dicey story for all characters involved and Lupica deals with it well.

Lupica goes out of his way to make sure it’s obvious that this takes place in the Parker-verse outside of Paradise. Of course, Sunny sees her therapist, Susan Silverman; Sunny consults Lee Farrell a few times (nice to see him again) and they talk about Frank Belson once or twice (the new captain, too); Vinne Morris pops in briefly; there’s a mention of Patricia Utley, and something Tony Marcus says places this at the same time as Angel Eyes. That’s nice and pretty fun, but he’s almost name-dropping enough to make him seem desperate to prove his legitimacy as a Parker fan. “No, really, I’m qualified to write these books, let me show you how familiar I am with all the series.” I think Atkins came close to this in his first two Spenser books, Coleman in his first Jesse Stone, so it’s not unique to Lupica. Also, he doesn’t get to the point of desperation, but he’s close—if he can just dial that back a bit now, he’s proved himself.

Feel free to skip this paragraph, I dance right down the border of The Spoiler Zone (and might put a couple of toes into it). My gut reaction to the way things were left with the Richie/Richard storyline is pretty negative. It’s hard to get into without spoiling things, but…Richie reacted irrationally to things given his family and who he knows Sunny is, and Sunny took the easy way out with things (Susan Silverman would not approve—if she let herself approve/disapprove of Sunny’s actions). Now, this doesn’t mean that Lupica fell down in the writing—he’s actually writing the characters the way they were created, flaws and all. I’d like to see some growth in the characters and we didn’t get that yet—but that could be because he’s setting things up for future books. Or, he could be letting these two stagnate where they are (see Parker’s treatment of Stone in the later books).

Sunny has a good deal of internal discussion about how she’s finding herself in the situations she’s facing because of decisions men have reached, and not herself—she’s reacting too much to men’s choices. She resolves not to be the threatened, but to be the one threatening. I think there’s a lot of merit to these lines of thinking—but she seems to go through this (or something pretty close to it) in every book (by Lupica or Parker). At some point, it’d be nice to see her move past this—or add some nuance or wisdom to this consideration.

Lupica keeps things moving throughout—even when Sunny’s investigation starts going in circles, the plot keeps going. He writes confidently and with just enough flair to make this fit in the Parker-verse. There’s a joke or two that he returns to too often, but it feels in-character for Sunny’s narration to do that, so I’m not complaining.

The last line…I’m not going to say anything about it, but I could fill an entire post with what I like about it, what it makes me fear, and how I should’ve seen it as inevitable. But… I’m not going to say anything about it because I don’t play that way. Feel free to talk about it in the comments after the book comes out, though.

So, I have a lot to say about this, it turns out—but it boils down to this: Grudge Match was a fast, easy read—the plot and the prose were as smooth as you could want. Lupica has captured the voice of the Sunny Randall books and has made it his own. While I was bothered by a couple of the character beats toward the end—they didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. If you’re a Sunny fan, you’ll be entertained. This actually would work as a pretty decent entry point to the series, too—it’s pretty accessible (including the ongoing arcs, Lupica makes sure that people who are new to the series or haven’t read them since the last Parker in ’07 have enough information to tap into them).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Robert B. Parker’s Grudge Match by Mike Lupica: Sunny Randall’s Forced to Work for an Enemy as Lupica Settles into the Series

Grudge Match

Robert B. Parker’s Grudge Match

by Mike Lupica
Series: Sunny Randall, #8

eARC, 210 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020

Read: April 21-22, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!


As I said last year when Lupica debuted his continuation of the Sunny Randall books with Blood Feud, I’ve had a complicated relationship with Sunny and was ambivalent with the series re-starting. However, I enjoyed Blood Feud (although comments on my post said I came across as lukewarm, I didn’t mean to) and really thought that Lupica had a good take on the character.

Thankfully, we don’t have a sophomore slump here, I think Lupica’s feeling more comfortable in these shoes and delivered something a little more ambitious. Tony Marcus begins this book by describing the best way to hold a grudge—and then goes on to point out all the reasons Sunny has recently given him to hold one against her. If nothing else is clear from this, you do not want Marcus harboring anything for you. He does this just to impress upon Sunny that his offer of employment is something she should strongly consider.

Tony’s lover, confidante, right hand, and former employee has left him. Without warning, without notice—and Tony wants her back. He’s not that concerned for her safety, he’s a little concerned that she defected to some new competition for his turf, but mostly he just wants to know what happened and how he can win her back. Sunny (and this reader) is fairly convinced by Marcus—she doesn’t think Marcus wants to hurt her, he just wants her back. Sunny hems and haws, but agrees to take on the case—for her own safety and because she’s able to convince herself that she’s actually working for Lisa Morneau, not Marcus.

This puts her on a path to explore the world of prostitution in Boston—this isn’t the first time Sunny’s done something like this, but this time she’s working for Marcus, which opens a few more doors. She meets with Lisa’s closest friend, someone she helped get out of the life, as well as former colleagues. Sunny also has several run-ins with Marcus’s new competitor, who seems like he’s wanting to start a war with him.

At some point, the trail leads to Paradise—leading to Sunny meeting up with Jesse Stone. The two banter and flirt a bit, and Jesse offers some help on the Paradise front. It was nice to see them together again (I’ve often thought the best use of the Sunny character was as Stone’s associate).

Now, it’s not long before the search for Lisa results in murder—and Lisa herself is frightened, sure that she’s next. Which drives Sunny to start to look into why would someone want to threaten her. What does Lisa know that makes her dangerous? And can Sunny use this knowledge to save Lisa and prevent the gang war on the verge of erupting?

While that’s going on Richie’s (other) ex-wife moves back to Boston with their son, Richard, and now wants Richie to play the role in Richard’s life that she’d previously blocked him from. Richie responds as any father worthy of the title would—he’s overjoyed and turns his life upside down to accommodate that without a second thought. Sunny recognizes that this is the way he should react, but can’t quite get on board with it herself in the same way—for a combination of reasons, some petty, some understandable (maybe some fit under both columns). It’s a dicey story for all characters involved and Lupica deals with it well.

Lupica goes out of his way to make sure it’s obvious that this takes place in the Parker-verse outside of Paradise. Of course, Sunny sees her therapist, Susan Silverman; Sunny consults Lee Farrell a few times (nice to see him again) and they talk about Frank Belson once or twice (the new captain, too); Vinne Morris pops in briefly; there’s a mention of Patricia Utley, and something Tony Marcus says places this at the same time as Angel Eyes. That’s nice and pretty fun, but he’s almost name-dropping enough to make him seem desperate to prove his legitimacy as a Parker fan. “No, really, I’m qualified to write these books, let me show you how familiar I am with all the series.” I think Atkins came close to this in his first two Spenser books, Coleman in his first Jesse Stone, so it’s not unique to Lupica. Also, he doesn’t get to the point of desperation, but he’s close—if he can just dial that back a bit now, he’s proved himself.

Feel free to skip this paragraph, I dance right down the border of The Spoiler Zone (and might put a couple of toes into it). My gut reaction to the way things were left with the Richie/Richard storyline is pretty negative. It’s hard to get into without spoiling things, but…Richie reacted irrationally to things given his family and who he knows Sunny is, and Sunny took the easy way out with things (Susan Silverman would not approve—if she let herself approve/disapprove of Sunny’s actions). Now, this doesn’t mean that Lupica fell down in the writing—he’s actually writing the characters the way they were created, flaws and all. I’d like to see some growth in the characters and we didn’t get that yet—but that could be because he’s setting things up for future books. Or, he could be letting these two stagnate where they are (see Parker’s treatment of Stone in the later books).

Sunny has a good deal of internal discussion about how she’s finding herself in the situations she’s facing because of decisions men have reached, and not herself—she’s reacting too much to men’s choices. She resolves not to be the threatened, but to be the one threatening. I think there’s a lot of merit to these lines of thinking—but she seems to go through this (or something pretty close to it) in every book (by Lupica or Parker). At some point, it’d be nice to see her move past this—or add some nuance or wisdom to this consideration.

Lupica keeps things moving throughout—even when Sunny’s investigation starts going in circles, the plot keeps going. He writes confidently and with just enough flair to make this fit in the Parker-verse. There’s a joke or two that he returns to too often, but it feels in-character for Sunny’s narration to do that, so I’m not complaining.

The last line…I’m not going to say anything about it, but I could fill an entire post with what I like about it, what it makes me fear, and how I should’ve seen it as inevitable. But… I’m not going to say anything about it because I don’t play that way. Feel free to talk about it in the comments after the book comes out, though.

So, I have a lot to say about this, it turns out—but it boils down to this: Grudge Match was a fast, easy read—the plot and the prose were as smooth as you could want. Lupica has captured the voice of the Sunny Randall books and has made it his own. While I was bothered by a couple of the character beats toward the end—they didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the book. If you’re a Sunny fan, you’ll be entertained. This actually would work as a pretty decent entry point to the series, too—it’s pretty accessible (including the ongoing arcs, Lupica makes sure that people who are new to the series or haven’t read them since the last Parker in ’07 have enough information to tap into them).

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—thanks to both for this.


3.5 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Classic Spenser: God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker

Classic Spenser

God Save the Child

God Save the Child

by Robert B. Parker
Series: Spenser, #2

Mass Market Paperback, 202 pg.
Dell Publishing Co., 1974

Read: February 25, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

He hunched the chair forward and wrote a check on the edge of my desk with a translucent ballpoint pen. Bartlett Construction was imprinted in the upper left corner of the check—I was going to be a business expense. Deductible. One keg of 8d nails, 500 feet of 2×4 utility grade, one gumshoe, 100 gallons of creosote stain. I took the check without looking at it and slipped it folded into my shirt pocket, casual, like I got them all the time and it was just something to pass along to my broker. Or maybe I’d buy some orchids with it.

A nice bit of description, a bit of wit and a Nero Wolfe reference. Not a bad start.

I’m not certain, but I think this was the first Spenser novel that I purchased, and I’d read a handful before then (my then local library started with book 3). It was a new copy (an extravagance for me then), and justing by the state it’s in, I may have to buy myself a replacement copy after one or two more reads. Actually, it may not survive another whole read (that back cover is holding on by strength of will).

Which is just a long-winded way to say that it’s not like I read this with fresh eyes.

Roger (call him “Rog”) and Marge Bartlett have come to Spenser for help finding their fourteen-year-old son, Kevin, who has seemingly run away from home with the clothes on his back and his pet guinea pig. He’s been gone a week, and the local police haven’t been able to do much. Spenser assures them that unlike the police, the only thing he has to focus on his hunting for Kevin—not breaking up fights, ticketing speeders, arresting drunks, etc.—”Also, maybe I’m smarter than they are.”

During their initial consultation, we see that the couple is also a bit more focused on other things than Kevin. Marge is sure to work in references to her acting and cooking classes, she’s a self-described creative person who has to express it. Rog seems a bit more focused on the bottom line (which he might need to be, since Marge seems to spend money like it’s going out of style). By the end of the book, my impression is that Rog is trying to do the right thing for his family, has some real concern over Kevin, but maybe doesn’t know how to show it. Marge is too self-involved for my taste and doesn’t come across very well (and has some other problems I won’t get into). But when the chips are down, both will selflessly and reflexively react to help their son. Their daughter, Kevin’s younger sister, is practically ignored throughout and I always feel bad for her. We’ll see an echo of this couple (with significant variations) in Promised Land in a couple of months.

The Bartletts live in Smithfield, which a fictionalized version of Lynnfield, MA. There are some pretty good reasons that Parker probably had to change the name in this novel, but as Spenser spends time in almost every novel since in Smithfield, I wonder if he ever regretted it.

Police Chief Trask is this close to being a tough-guy cartoon of a cop. He’s far more concerned with making sure that Spenser knows that he’s running the show than he is in anything Spenser has to say on their initial meeting (and he doesn’t improve much after this). He’s done some checking on Spenser and the two banter a bit about Spenser’s record. Well, Spenser banters and Trask tries to push him around, anyway.

Before Spenser can do too much on his own to find Kevin, a very strange looking ransom note shows up. Which brings the Massachusetts State Police, in the person of Lt. Healy, into things.

Healy I knew of . He was chief investigator for the Essex County DA”s office. There were at least two first-run racketeers I knew who stayed out of Essex County because they didn’t want any truck with him.

Healy said, ‘Didn’t you used to work for the Suffolk County DA once?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Didn’t they fire you for hotdogging?”

“I like to call it inner-directed behavior,” I said.

“I’ll bet you do.” Healy said.

Healy is tough, smart and ethical—and has little respect for Trask. He and Spenser work together pretty well, and Healy will appear or be mentioned in another dozen Spenser novels before making regular appearances in the Jesse Stone books.

From this point, things get strange—the ransom note is just the beginning, and a strange kidnapping will evolve into a murder case, a drugs and prostitution ring, and . . . well, more things. As with The Godwulf Manuscript the climactic fight involves two people who have no business engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Unlike last time, Spenser’s not sidelined for this fight and gets involved as well—it’s one of my favorite fight scenes in the series. Parker shows off his knowledge of and affinity for boxing here. Spenser’s motive for engaging in the fight isn’t necessarily pure, and I kind of like how honest Parker and Spenser both are about that.

As nice as that scene is, that’s not the end of the story—and whatever victory Spenser enjoys, it’s empty. Which is a nod to Spenser’s noir lineage and something that will show up again and again in the series.

While we’re introduced to Spenser in the previous novel, it doesn’t feel quite like a Spenser novel. But God Save the Child does. The same flavor, pacing, and approach to the story that are here are in almost every thing that Parker does with the character from this point forward. The character will evolve from novel to novel, but the series really starts here.

Possibly the biggest reason for that is that it’s in these pages we meet Susan Silverman. She’s the guidance counselor at Smithfield High School and after the Assistant Principal demonstrates that he’s useless for giving Spenser any insight into Kevin, she’s who Spenser turns to. Spenser’s described quite a few women prior to this, but from the first paragraph, Susan’s different.

Susan Silverman wasn’t beautiful. but there was an intangibility about her a physical reality, that made the secretary with the lime-green bosom seem insubstantial. She had should-length black hair and a thin dark Jewish face with prominent cheekbones. Tall, maybe five seven, with black eyes. It was hard to tell her age, but there was a sense about her of intelligent maturity which put her on my side of thirty…When she shook hands with me, I felt something click down the back of my solar plexus.

I said hello without stammering and sat down.

Parker’s not quite as blatant about it as Henry Fielding is about Sophie (for those who’ve been reading my Fridays with the Foundling series), but he’s fairly obvious in the way he portrays Susan in this scene (not to mention the several that follow) that she’s different. Exceptional. She ends up being the love of Spenser’s life and shows up in every book hereafter. But for now, they’re just meeting, but there’s a spark between the two of them and Spenser soon asks her to dinner.

I had just finished washing my hands and face when the doorbell rang. Everything was ready. Ah, Spenser, what a touch. Everything was just right except that I couldn’t seem to find a missing child. Well, nobody’s perfect. I pushed the release button and opened my apartment door. I was wrong. Susan Silverman was perfect.

It took nearly forty years of savior faire to keep from saying “Golly.”…

“Come in,” I said. Very smooth. I didn’t scuff my foot; I didn’t mumble. I stood right up straight when I said it. I don’t think I blushed.

During their date, Susan makes the following observation about Spenser,

So, sticking your nose into things and getting it broken allows you to live life on your own terms, perhaps.

Spenser is impressed with this insight—and it’s a recurring theme for the two of them to talk about for the next few decades—with each other or when Susan tries to explain Spenser to others. The choices he’s made in his life—relational, vocational, lifestyle, what have you—are all about living life on his own terms. There’s a lot to be commended in this approach, and some problems (in two books we meet a more extreme version of someone living this way…but that’s for another day). Another frequent thing that comes up in their conversations appeared for the first time when they met.

“Why do you want to know?” [Susan asks]

“Because it’s there. Because it’s better to know than not to know in my line of work.”

If I had a quarter for every time the two of them said this (sometimes he does the set up), I’d be able to buy my replacement copy of this book.

It’s not just because they say the same things in almost every book (wow, it sounds dull when I put it that way—it’s not, at least not for several years), it’s the effect that Susan has on Spenser that changes the series. It made Spenser stand out from the rest of the genre’s tough guys. I could go on and on about Susan or Susan-and-Spenser, but I’ll hold off on it for now.

As chapter two begins, we’re treated to four long paragraphs (about two pages in my edition) describing the route between Boston and Smithfield, with commentary from Spenser on the scenery, traffic, businesses, etc. that he comes across. This is something that Parker excels at—and doesn’t do nearly often enough (but at least once a book). I’ve never been in that part of the world, I defiantly can’t go to the version of that area that existed in 1974—but I walk away from this description feeling like I know the area.

As far as recurring characters go (other than Healy and Susan), Frank Belson makes a quick appearance, and we meet Henry Cimoli—who runs the Harbor Health Club, Spenser’s gym. Henry’s importance will ebb and flow (as will the frequency of appearances) over the rest of the series, but he’s a constant enough presence that it’s good to meet him for the first time here.

There’s a lot more that could be mined from these pages, but this has gotten too long. I may pick up a strand or two in the future, but we’ll see. God Save the Child seems to be a story about a runaway (or a kidnapping?), but really it’s about a young man struggling to understand his place in the world, parents who aren’t sure how to parent, and a detective starting to change his place in the world. There’s a lot of wit, some good social commentary, some decent detecting, and a great fight scene—all expertly and (seemingly) effortlessly written. That’s a reductionistic way to look at it, but that’s a Spenser novel in a nutshell. I loved revisiting it, and can’t wait to get to the next book.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Classic Spenser: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

Classic Spenser

The Godwulf Manuscript

The Godwulf Manuscript

by Robert B. Parker
Series: Spenser, #1

Mass Market Paperback, 204 pg.
Dell, 1973

Read: January 25-27, 2020

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Driving back to Boston, I thought about my two retainers in the same week. Maybe I’d buy a yacht. On the other hand maybe it would be better to get the tear in my convertible roof fixed. The tape leaked.

I came to this series about thirteen (possibly fourteen) years late, but to be fair, I would have been thirteen (possibly fourteen) when I started reading it. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Spenser without having spent some time with Leroy Brown, Jupiter Jones/Peter Crenshaw/Bob Andrews, Tabitha-Ruth Wexler and others (as I’ve invoked Brown, I hope I remember to draw a line between Sally Kimball and Spenser’s version when I discuss Promised Land). The Godwulf Manuscript wasn’t the first novel I read in the series, I’m going to guess I’d read three or four others before I found this in a used book store. I did find, I now know, a copy with the original cover (as seen above). A year or two later, I loaned it to a friend who proceeded to lose it. I got over it (probably because I didn’t care about things like early editions then) and despite losing that copy, that friend later became my first college roommate, and I didn’t kill him in his sleep for it. Not even once.

That excursus down memory lane means nothing to you, but I put it there in case that friend reads this post. I hope he remembers the Klingon proverb, bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’.

I’ll hold off on talking more about my background with this series for now, but the fact I’ve been reading, and re-reading, and re-re-reading, and re-re-re-reading these books since 1986 (possibly 1987) probably gives you a pretty good idea what I think of them. I could probably write lengthy posts on the first twenty novels in this series without reading them again—but where would be the fun in that? Of the twelve Spenser novels I’ll be revisiting this year, this one is in my bottom two and I’ve read it at least fifteen times, and I don’t see me stopping reading it anytime until I start sleeping the big sleep.

Yeah, that was a purposeful Raymond Chandler allusion. Why? Because this whole novel is a giant Chandler allusion*. From naming his main character after a British poet; to Spener’s attitude, demeanor, voice, etc.; to the opening paragraphs; and so, so much more this whole book screams Parker’s debt to and affection for Raymond Chandler. Spenser as a Shadow of Philip Marlowe will ebb and flow over the years, but I don’t think it’s ever more pronounced than it is in these pages.

* Yeah, there are other influences afoot in these pages, I realize. But Chandler is the primary influence, and this isn’t a dissertation. I don’t have the time to be exhaustive, I have at least 9 other posts I want to complete this week and if I don’t cut a corner or two, I won’t be able to get to them.

So what are these two retainers mentioned above? The first comes from an unnamed university that bears a striking resemblance to Northeastern (Parker’s employer when this was released). An illuminated manuscript has been stolen and is being held for ransom. The problem? (or at least one of them) The University doesn’t have the kind of cash the ‘script-nappers want. They do have a suspect, however, a radical political group on campus: SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). Catchy, eh? Spenser starts looking into the group, focusing on a couple of the leaders.

Within a few hours, one of those leaders is dead and another is the prime suspect for the murder. She’d called Spenser for help right after the murder, and he believes her (for compelling reasons you should read for yourself). This leads to the second retainer, her father—a pretty successful capitalist, it should be noted—hires Spenser to clear her for the murder.

The hunt for the manuscript and the murder will end up involving a cult, a couple of very dysfunctional marriages, drug dealing, a couple of hitmen, and a mob boss. Basically, Spenser has his hands full.

While there are many aspects of this novel that Parker will tweak for future installments, there’s a lot that he establishes here that he’ll revisit. Spenser gets fired because of his attitude (as demonstrated by his ignoring—rightly—the University’s insistence that he leave faculty alone), his being fired doesn’t stop him from sticking with the job, however. There’s a shootout in an unpopulated area near Boston*. Spenser cooks a pretty decent meal for himself (not quite Fritz Brenner’s level, but close enough for a guy cooking for one), and proves himself more literate than anyone looking at him would assume. The climactic fight will be echoed in upcoming books, featuring someone who has no business fighting anyone taking on a hardened criminal of sorts solely on the basis of love and desperation. Parker does get away from this, which is good—if only for the sake of variety—but man, I love it every time he uses this.

* My knowledge of Massachusetts geography comes wholly from the novels of Parker, William Tapply and Dennis Lehane, so I can’t be more specific than “unpopulated”.

Spenser physically roughs up a couple of college kids and verbally pushes around an older man. Each incident is followed by Spenser berating himself. This is the kind of thing that you don’t see a whole lot in the hardboiled world before Spenser’s debut. Parker will do a more subtle job in the future of showing that while Spenser will resort to violence when necessary, he doesn’t relish it (except when he knows the recipient is guilty of something) and regrets the act. But here, it’s pretty clear that Parker’s trying to show that Spenser isn’t unfeeling about acts of aggression.

There are things that show up here that will disappear—Spenser sleeps with two different women and is fairly casual about it. He’ll later become a paragon of monogamy, but that’s a couple of years away. Still, he’s less of a player next time we see him. He’s also a bit more antagonistic to most of the police that he encounters than he’ll be in books to come. Some of that is a shift in Spenser, some of that is a growth in the relationships he develops with individual members of BPD.

The main thing that sticks around in the future are some of the characters—we meet people here that Spenser still knows and interacts with on a regular basis. Spenser flirts a lot with the secretary for the head of Campus Security, and we’ll see her later. A reporter for the Campus newspaper gives Spenser a lot of help and information about various people/groups on campus, her name is Iris Milford and when Ace Atkins brought her back in 2015, I may have let out an audible whoop. We meet Spenser’s lawyer, Vince Haller, who not only helps Spenser, but the college student being framed. Haller will eventually disappear from the stage (I realize as I write this), but he’s a frequent presence for a long time to come.

But the three big recurring characters are Lt. Martin Quirk, Sgt. Frank Belson and Joe Broz. Spenser and Belson (a homicide detective) have some history and clearly respect (and even like) each other. Belson’s smart, appears lazy (appears), perpetually has a cheap cigar in his mouth (I think that’s a characteristic in this novel, if not, it will be next time we see him). Belson’s superior is Lt. Quirk. Quirk is a very no-nonsense cop, he’s driven, almost humorless, and has no use for private investigators, but sees a little value in Spenser and begins to trust him a bit over the course of this novel. Joe Broz, on the other hand, couldn’t be less a homicide detective if he tried—you could argue Broz (and his employees) are responsible for the continued careers for a handful of homicide detectives. He’s a crime boss of some notoriety and viciousness. At this point (and for some time to come), he’s the most powerful mobster in Boston (although we will soon meet competition). Spenser will be a thorn in Broz’s side for a long, long time.

It occurs to me that I haven’t described Spenser himself. He’s a former professional boxer (not that good, but he did get his nose broken by someone who was very good); a Korean War vet; a former Massachusetts State Trooper, assigned to the DA’s office in a County that fluctuates depending on Parker’s memory; and now a Private Investigator. He’s very literate, he likes to cook (as I mentioned), he drinks a lot, thinks he’s funnier than anyone else does (except the readers of the novels)—which brings him a lot of grief. We don’t get a lot of insight into it in this novel, but honor’s very important to him and it will influence the way he deals with clients, victims, criminals and everyone else along the way. He’s very much a latter-day knight.

I’m not sure that the mystery is all that clever, but the strength of this book is riding along with Spenser as he goes around annoying people until someone does something that he can catch them at (a strategy he’ll spell out in the future, but follows here). I love the voice, I enjoy the character, and watching him go about his business is a pure joy for me.

I haven’t discussed the action/fight scenes yet, and Parker’s approach to them (particularly in the first 15-20 of the series) has always greatly appealed to me. Parker has to address violence, given his chosen genre–and Spenser is a violent man. But in months to come, we see the character address that in such a way to give us insight into why Parker uses it the way he does (I think). So I’ll put a pin in this for now (also, this is long-winded enough at this point that I’ll take any excuse to wrap things up).

I, obviously, highly recommend this book—but I’ll be the first to say that the second is much better and the fourth and fifth in this series are better yet. You don’t have to start with this one for future books to make sense—in fact, you might appreciate Spenser more if you start later on. But for my money, you’re not likely to find many characters as compelling in contemporary (or at least late-Twentieth Century) hardboiled fiction. For introducing the character to the world/the world to the character of Spenser, The Godwulf Manuscript is well-worth the time. Even if it wasn’t the start of something big, it’s still entertaining enough for me to encourage you to read it.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Opening Lines: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest (plus the 39 novels to follow by Parker (not to mention the 8+ by Ace Atkins)).

from The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker:

The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows. There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs. The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie.

Bradford W. Forbes, the president, was prosperously heavy—reddish face; thick, longish, white hair; heavy white eyebrows. He was wearing a brown pin-striped custom-tailored three-piece suit with a gold Phi Beta Kappa key on a gold watch chain stretched across his successful middle. His shirt was yellow broadcloth and his blue and yellow striped red tie spilled out over the top of his vest.

As he talked, Forbes swiveled his chair around stared at his reflection in the window. Flakes of the season’s first snow flattened out against it and dissolved and trickled down onto the white brick sill. It was very gray out, a November grayness that is peculiar to Boston in late fall, and Forbes’s office seemed cheerier than it should have because of that.

He was telling me about the sensitive nature of a college president’s job, and there was apparently a lot to say about it. I’d been there twenty minutes and my eyes were beginning to cross. I wondered if I should tell him his office looked like a whorehouse. I decided not to.

“Do you see my position, Mr. Spenser,” he said, and swiveled back toward me, leaning forward and putting both his hands palms down on the top of his desk. His nails were manicured.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “We detectives know how to read people.”

Forbes frowned and went on.

“It is a matter of the utmost delicacy, Mr. Spenser”—he was looking at himself in the glass again—”requiring restraint, sensitivity, circumspection, and a high degree of professionalism. I don’t know the kind of people who usually employ you, but…”

I interrupted him.

“Look, Dr. Forbes, I went to college once, I don’t wear my hat indoors. And if a clue comes along and bites me on the ankle, I grab it. I am not, however, an Oxford don. I am a private detective. Is there something you’d like me to detect, or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year’s commencement?”

Forbes inhaled deeply and let the air out slowly through his nose.

“District Attorney Frale told us you were somewhat overfond of your own wit.”

Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins: Spenser’s 47th Novel Finds him in L.A. and Feels as Fresh as Ever

Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker’s Angel Eyes

by Ace Atkins
Series: Spenser, #7

Hardcover, 305 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: November 20-21, 2019

In the passing light, I noticed the welts on her wrists, chapped and bloody.

She’d been tied up for a long time.

Chollo noticed them, too.

“Should we kill him?” he said.

“Too easy.”

“You will never change, amigo,” he said. When will you learn? Some people live without rules. And sometimes killing a bad man is the only way.”

“I have other ideas for [him].”

Chollo nodded. “And I am listening”

The day that Hawk, Chollo (and a few others) stop trying to convince Spenser to just kill the bad guy and be done with it—or the day that he listens to them—is the day we’ll all know the series has run its course. Which will hopefully be around the time my future grandchildren start reading the series.

But far before we get to that point, we should probably start at the beginning.

A friend of Susan’s is worried about her daughter, who lives in L.A. and has gone missing. She’s beside herself, so Spenser flies out to find her with Zebulon Sixkill’s help. The book opens with Spenser and Z being let into Gabby’s apartment by her ex-boyfriend and still-agent, Eric Collinson. Collinson is typically the kind of twerp that Spenser would enjoy messing with, but he’s on his best behavior (probably to keep Collinson talking).

Collinson keeps insisting there’s nothing to worry about, that Gabby’s probably just off on a quick Mexican vacation or something. Still, he surreptitiously leaves her laptop behind for Spenser to “find.” Between what Z’s tech-wizard friend finds on the laptop, what Z and Spenser get from the LAPD (in the person of our old acquaintance Samuelson) and Gabby friends/former boss, there are two avenues of investigation for them to dive into. A powerful studio executive and a multi-level personal development group that’s somewhere in-between Scientology and NXIVM (far closer to the latter). But before they can dig too far into things, some heavies representing a third party show up and the lead starts flying.

And I ate it all up.

It’s dangerous enough that Z isn’t enough to help Spenser out. Chollo (now a small-businessman), Bobby Horse and Mr. del Rio put in appearances and render assistance in varying amounts.

I could easily keep going along these lines for 6-10 more paragraphs, but I’d better show some restraint and leave things there and move onto other parts of the book.

In addition to the hunt for Gabby, we get a little bit of Spenser’s jaded view of the entertainment industry (largely in the same vein as we saw in A Savage Place and Stardust, just up-to-date); a lot of references to movies and stars that are so irrelevant to contemporary Hollywood that most of the characters don’t get them; and a very jaded (but likely accurate) look at “The Industry” post-#MeToo.

Also, we get a hint or two at what Z’s been up to since he left Boston and Atkins has completely left the possibility open for someone to start a Sixkill series, already populated with a cast of characters to carry a book or two. I’m ready to buy at least 5 of them in hardcover right now.

The last little things that I’ll mention are that we get a nice update on Mattie Sullivan, but we need to see more of her soon. Plus, there’s a cameo that filled my heart with joy here—that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Atkins is in fine form, which comes as no surprise to anyone. I didn’t spend too much time comparing him to Parker as I read it, but you can’t help but do it. It’s a fast, breezy style, but there are depths to be plumbed (unlike several of Parker’s latter Spensers). It’s just a pleasure to bask in the language, dialogue, and characters.

At this point, when it comes to an Atkins Spenser novel, it’s really just a question of how much I’m going to like it, it’d be impossible (I wager) for him to deliver something that I won’t like. I liked this one plenty. A fine story, a setting the character hasn’t been in for a while, a chance to catch up with old friends . . . Angel Eyes is as satisfying as you could ask for. Could you start with it? Sure. You wouldn’t get all of the references, but none of them would impact your appreciation of the story. The only danger in starting with Angel Eyes is that you’d probably feel compelled to go back and read the previous 46. Which actually sounds like a lot of fun to me.

I hemmed and hawed over the stars on this one. If I had a 4 1/4 graphic, I probably would’ve employed it. My initial impulse was 4 Stars, but when I stop and think about: there was one page where I laughed out loud (at least a chuckle) multiple times (I really want to talk about it in detail, but don’t want to ruin anything); the way Atkins pulled in every L.A. reference possible (plus some other Spenser-canon references) without making it feel like checking off a list; and the feeling of dread and worry Atkins was able to elicit (which really doesn’t happen all that often in long-running series)…I’ve gotta give it that extra bump (and now that I’ve actually written that list, I’m thinking of bumping it up another).


4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

Pub Day Repost: The Bitterest Pill by Reed Farrel Coleman: Paradise, MA comes face to face with the Opioid Epidemic

The Bitterest Pill

Robert B. Parker’s The Bitterest Pill

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone, #18

eARC, 368 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: July 31 – August 3, 2019

Well, it’s pretty clear that Don Winslow has left his mark on Reed Farrel Coleman—there’s a quotation from Winslow on the so-called War on Drugs as the epigraph to this novel. Jesse cites it and alludes to it later in the novel. It’s a good line—catchy and insightful (and, not that it matters, I agree 100% with it)—don’t misunderstand me, but I’m used to Robert B. Parker characters citing Shakespeare, (Edmund) Spenser, Shelley, and songs from the late 60s/70s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quote someone contemporary. The latest focus of most of our country in that War is the Opioid Crisis, in The Bitterest Pill, that epidemic shows up in Paradise, Massachusettes—partially fulfilling Vinnie Morris’ prediction to Jesse that Boston crime was on its way to Paradise.

A student at Paradise High—the daughter of a city councilman—dies of an overdose and the city is rocked. It can’t be the first drug-related death in its history, but this was a different kind of thing. She’s not an obvious user, cheerleader, from a well-to-do family, and so on. Not the kind of person that Paradise is ready to believe would be an addict or that would die of an O.D.

What’s obvious to Jesse and his team is that if they don’t shut down the supply chain that fed this girl her drugs, she won’t be the only death, she’ll just be the first. This sets Jesse on a Hunt through Paradise High School and Boston’s underbelly. There’s a moment that made me think of Connelly’s Two Kinds of Truth (which just means that Connelly and Coleman have both done their research into the ways prescription drug rings work, not that Coleman’s copying anything)—but there’s a difference. Bosch is trying to deal with a situation, he’s involved in busting a ring as a means to an end. Jesse? He’s trying to protect his town it’s personal—and the ways that this particular ring is trying to invade Paradise are more diverse than what Bosch dealt with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re worried about Colorblind spoilers.
I avoided talking about the new character Cole last time out, because, how could I? I’m on the fence with him, honestly. I don’t see where he was necessary—Jesse has Suit to father (although, at this stage, Luther doesn’t need much), he’s got the weight of the city on his shoulders, what’s added to the character by this relation? On the other hand, scenes with him are done so well, and Jesse’s different with him. I really enjoy him—he’s not the Paradise equivalent of Paul Giacomin, thankfully (nothing against Paul, we just don’t need another one), he’s a different kind of character (as Jesse was compared to Spenser and Sunny).

Speaking of Suitcase, I think I’ve loved everything Coleman’s done with him (every major thing, anyway, there might have been a scene or two that I forgot about), other than not using him as often as he could. But there’s a scene with Suit and Cole in this book that is so well done that it’s one of those passages I could read from time to time just to smile at. He’s come a long way. Molly seemed a little under-used, but she was good whenever she showed up and did get to shine a bit. I think Coleman overplayed the difficulty of Molly doing her job because of the way this case impacted Paradise’s children a bit (really not much), and, as always, he’s too dependent on bringing up the incident with Crow in relation to Molly. But on the whole, Suit, Molly and the rest of Paradise PD came off pretty well.

For awhile under Coleman and Ace Atkins, Vinnie Morris seemed more dangerous, more of a wild card—less “tamed.” But both the way that Atkins has used him the last time or two and here he seems to be tacking back to a friendly criminal who’s too willing to help out the non-criminal element. Frankly, I prefer the less-tame version, but as someone who’s enjoyed Vinnie since he worked for Joe Broz ages ago, I don’t care, I just like seeing him on the page.

After the very effective use of the mayor recently, I was surprised at her absence in this novel—not that there was room for anything like that.

There’s really one more supporting character that we should talk about—Alcohol. Jesse’s greatest foe (although, you could argue he’s the enemy and alcohol is the tool he uses to attack himself, but…eh, let’s make this easy and say alcohol). He may be clean and sober, but he’s still an addict, and his drug of choice is still a near-constant presence in his life. I love, respect and admire the way that Jesse (and Coleman) have dealt with this subject, particularly since Jesse stopped drinking. It’s so much more believable (and healthy) than Jesse’s attempts to manage his drinking before. I liked the approach in Colorblind, and continuing it in The Bitterest Pill made it stronger.

So, we’ve got Jesse battling personal demons (but with a clearer head), adjusting to a new personal reality, and dealing with a potentially crushing crime wave that’s leaving a trail of destruction through the youth of Paradise. Throw in the instability of a new romantic relationship? Jesse’s in a pretty healthy place, but given the pressures (and a couple I didn’t list)—it’s gotta be weighing on him, and Coleman does a pretty good job of balancing the health and precarious nature of Jesse’s state of mind.

As Coleman’s writing, it seemed frequently that he was trying too hard to make this something the level of Colorblind or Debt to Pay, and didn’t quite make it. Maybe because he was trying so hard? The topic he’s dealing with is important, so it’s understandable he’s taking big swings to hit this out of the park. But there are a few sentences that no one but Reed Farrel Coleman could have written. They were gorgeous and practically sang. I don’t want to sound like one of those anti-genre literary snobs, but Coleman comes close to transcending the genre and its easy to see the impact his poetry frequently has on his prose.

At the same time, he’s an effective mystery writer—there are red herrings all over the place for readers to get distracted with. As far as the main conduit for drugs into the school goes, I had a candidate I was sure of and a back-up, and another one, too. I couldn’t have been more wrong and had dismissed the actual perpetrator without much thought at all. While ratcheting up the tension, keeping me locked into the story, he pulls the wool over my eyes and manages a few lines that are practically lyrical. There are few in the genre who can match that.

The ending of this novel came as a little bit of a gut punch. Granted, there was a sense in which the last couple of pages couldn’t have gone any other way—I’ll leave the specifics out of it, but the last few paragraphs were hard to read. But they were so, so good. They might be the most effective few paragraphs in the book. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that just when you think the story’s done, it’s not.

Rumor has it that this is Coleman’s last Jesse Stone book—I hope it’s not true, but it’d make sense as he’s switching publishers. As I said when his first entry in this series came out, his was the best Jesse Stone since Parker’s early days with the series. Yes, he didn’t do things the way Parker would have (especially later), but what he did was honest and genuine to the spirit of the characters and series that Parker left. Stone has a complexity that Spenser lost in the mid-80s, and Coleman recaptured that. The Bitterest Pill might not have been Coleman’s Stone at his best, but I think that’s largely because he was trying too hard to say something about the societal impact of the drugs (whereas in Colorblind it seemed effortless). And, while it wasn’t as good as it wanted to be, it was very, very good, and will go down as one of the higher points of the series.

The Bitterest Pill would be a good place to meet Jesse Stone and the rest of the Paradise Police Department, and it’s a great way for long-time fans/readers to touch base with them. I strongly recommend this.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post—I thank both groups for this.


4 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge