PAINTED LADIES opens with the Boston PI with no first name, Spenser, wise-cracking with a potential client who has arrived in his Boylston Street office in need of help. Many of these novels have started in this office the same way. But this time a priceless painting has been stolen from The Hammond Museum, and Dr. Ashton Prince needs to hire Spenser to accompany him and provide security during the ransom exchange.
Simple and familiar enough. But readers and longtime fans know that there is nothing ordinary about this 38th Spenser novel. This is the first book released in the series since Robert B. Parker's death in January. Hence, it might be what we hoped we would never have to read: the last Spenser story. Befitting the author called the dean of American crime fiction, there was a little mystery surrounding the announcement of his passing. It was mentioned that Parker had completed several unpublished works before his death. Two of those books have already come out this year: SPLIT IMAGE, a Jesse Stone novel, was published in February, and BLUE-EYED DEVIL, a Virgil Cole western, arrived last spring. So there is no mention if PAINTED LADIES will be the last adventure for Spenser. We will have to wait and see.
At the risk of reading too much into it, this book has a valedictory feel to it. Can a great writer and artist sense when his greatest literary creation is reaching the end of the road? Well, Spenser shows no signs of aging here. He has not seemingly aged a day or lost a step since his first appearance in THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT in 1973. But there is an unavoidable sense of mortality in these pages.
First the bad news. Longtime fans will be disappointed that Hawk is not present here at the possible end of the series. When the story starts, he is off in Central Asia working for the "Gray Man," the CIA agent who nearly killed Spenser once. So with Hawk off presumably working as a professional government assassin, the bulk of PAINTED LADIES features Spenser and the love of his life, Susan. But the book delivers everything else we expect from a Spenser story, such as the crisp dialogue and short chapters. The joy of these novels has really never been about solving the mystery. Nor were they hard-boiled noir fiction. The fun was to spend time with Spenser, to be the fly on the wall observing a knight errant in the modern world. For in his decency, strength and taste --- here we find that he knows Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" --- Spenser reassured us in an ever-changing world that the good guys can still win in the end, at least once in a while.
So what's different about this story? The ransom exchange for the painting goes wrong, and Spenser's client is blown up by a bomb in front of his eyes. Of course, he cannot let it go. He feels responsible for not doing his job of protecting Dr. Prince or the painting. Or, as Captain Healy, another series regular, says, "And he won't let go until he makes this right." Nobody involved --- not the museum or insurance company or the dead man's wife --- seems very interested in making it right, which simply makes Spenser push harder. Twice, he comes within seconds of being killed. And without Hawk to watch his back, it is simply plain luck that keeps our hero alive.
Throughout the series, Spenser has dealt with killers and thugs, but there is something different this time. These killers are professional, with military links tracking back to the Middle East. And it is almost as if the terror of the improvised explosive devise (IED), a direct consequence of our invasion of Iraq, has now come home to haunt Spenser. No, this story has nothing to do with America's current wars, and the politics here traces back to the hatreds of the mid-20th century. But Spenser and Susan seem to have a sense that it all could end in an instant, which of course it did last January in real life.
"I couldn't bare it if they killed you," Susan tells him at one point. And Spenser, being Spenser, simply grins at her and says, "Me, either." So, of course, Spenser uses himself as bait to break the case. And he takes the precaution of writing down all the details of the case and mailing it to Healy to be opened should anything happen to him. He says, "Expect the best...Plan for the worst." Healy responds, "Well, at least I'll have a keepsake."
What results is a Spenser book that builds with tension and foreboding right up until the end. And if this is the conclusion of the series, longtime fans of Parker should say "Bravo." We have marked the autumns of our lives with a new installment in the series like clockwork each and every year for decades. And we have witnessed and enjoyed one of the greatest fictional creations in American literature.
Writers such as Hammett, Chandler and Ross MacDonald created the fictional PI in the mid-years of the American century. Then, when it seemed that noir had become a tired cliché and the optimism of that century was shaken by war abroad and upheaval at home, along came Spenser. (Oh, by the way, Parker teases us about the first name here when Spenser is asked for it by somebody. He tells them. But not us!) We can take comfort in the fact that these books will be read for as long as the works of the earlier masters of mystery are read. Plus, we can go back to the beginning and enjoy them all over again.
Parker writes in PAINTED LADIES, "It had snowed during the night, and the world looked very clean, which I knew it not to be. But illusion is nice sometimes." It sure is. Thank you, Robert B. Parker, for the great reads.
--- Reviewed by Tom Callahan