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Bad Business
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on March 17, 2004
I was fortunate enough to attend a book signing in NYC by Robert Parker immediately after the publication of BAD BUSINESS. The Q&A which preceded it covered a fascinating breadth of topics, including his background, personal philosophy, writing methodology, baseball (and sports in general), Robert Urich and Joe Montegna as Spenser, the lack of appreciation among today's readers for the way Raymond Chandler exercised his craft, and what genre actually characterizes his stories. He opined that while he understood the need for booksellers to include them in the mystery category and it certainly had aided his success, he actually viewed them as more commentaries on human nature and interpersonal relationships than mysteries per se. To roughly paraphrase him, no one reads his books anxiously awaiting the revelation of "who did it". Rather it's about the how and the why and how Spenser manages to exact some rough measure of justice for those concerned. Of course, if you are one of the many Spenser/Robert Parker fans, you are already aware of this fact and simply want to know how this story compares to the many previous books. Whereas if you are new reader, you undoubtedly are curious about not only the quality of this story but also whether it is the type of literature that you are likely to enjoy.
My five star rating is my summary answer to the question of where this book ranks relative to other Spenser novels, it is in the first tier and a natural progression of the series. It includes the wonderfully spare dialog that is a trademark of the relationship of Spenser and Hawk (with the usual commentaries on race), the wisecracking asides and double entendres between Susan and Spenser, the intrusion of Spenser's moral code as the action evolves and of course the ever increasing cast of characters that makes the series stay fresh and alive - Vinnie Morris, brief appearances by the cops Belson, Quirk, and Healy, the lawyer Rita Fiore as well, and almost without saying the essential role of Pearl (the Wonderdog) II. This case begins when Spenser is hired by Marlene Rowley to obtain evidence that will confirm her belief that her husband Trent is cheating on her, which she plans to use for leverage in a possible divorce. Complications begin when Spenser encounters two other low rent private eyes tailing other family members of the executives of Kinergy, the hugely successful and widely respected energy trading firm where Trent is CFO. It is soon clear that the lifestyles of the management team have been influenced by the concepts of pop radio talk show host Darrin O'Mara, whose notions of the role of "cross-connubial" relationships have provided the cover for the sexual experimentation that is occurring. Suddenly, however, the game being played rises to a much more dangerous level when Trent Rowley is discovered dead in his office one evening. As Spenser attempts to unravel the mystery, another death occurs and it is clear that much more is at stake than marital bliss. Kinergy turns out to be a thinly disguised Enron, and Bob Cooper, the CEO, could apparently be Ken Lay. Since forensic accounting is not Spenser's strong point (there is a wonderful aside by Belson to that effect), Spenser convinces his pal Marty Siegel (self described as "the best accountant in the world") to examine the books and he discovers an SPE (Special Purpose Entity), in this case the author's art imitates real life. So, it is left to Spenser to discover the roles of the various executives, including Bernie Eisen, the COO, who together with his wife Ellen were enjoying both the marital and financial shenanigans. And more importantly, how did such financial misdeeds suddenly become the backdrop for murder and whodunit?
The book is fun, interesting and the quick read that is typical of the series - a train or plane trip or a rainy day will be more than enough time to enjoy it thoroughly. And there are the usual nuggets of insight, such as Susan in her professional role as a shrink commenting upon the probable multiple motivations which Marlene had for hiring Spenser. She suggests to Spenser that in addition to preparing for the divorce, it meant that she could gain the information necessary to not only humiliate her husband and thus gain revenge but also she would no longer feel excluded but in effect become a vicarious participant. And in one of the truly memorable lines that makes Parker so enjoyable a writer and Hawk so unique a character, Hawk actually manages to accuse Susan of being an undershirt bigot. (Absolutely not! No explanation here, you have to read the book to uncover the meaning.)
I deducted a half point from my rating for two reasons. First, I was surprised to see Robert Parker utilize something as directly ripped from the headlines as the topic of corporate greed and accounting fraud to form the basis of his plot; even though this had an interesting twist and certainly allows the type of commentary on the human condition typical of Parker's work, it didn't really seem to play to his strengths as an author. (He solved the crime but basically left the financial issues that resulted from the fraud unresolved.) Second, the way Spenser wrapped up the case was very clever and actually quite amusing; while the action was incredibly abrupt the scene was in many ways among his best. However, I felt that justice was not as well served in all respects as in many of his other stories. However, to reiterate, an enjoyable read if you're a Spenser devotee, and a story invoving a cast of characters that you'll probably want to spend more time with if this is your introduction.
Tucker Andersen
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on March 19, 2004
One of the finest gifts the first few months of a new year can bring is a new Spenser novel. Spenser and his creator, Robert B. Parker, have become, at least in some circles, cultural institutions. Parker is on record as stating that he will continue to write Spenser novels as long as people want them, and certainly there appears to be no flagging of interest in them. He has been careful to make changes only on minor elements of Spenser's surroundings, while keeping the primary elements, such as friends and personalities, pretty much intact. The result is a comfortable but dependable familiarity that kicks in as soon as one begins a Spenser novel.
This leaves Parker free to gently experiment with plot lines and the secondary characters who populate them. Reading a Spenser novel is like walking once a week down a familiar street where everything is slightly different: here, there's a new store, there, a fresh and different coat of paint on some shutters, and there, yes, right there, a new and interesting face with a story to tell. All of those elements make the walk worthwhile; so, too, is the annual visit with Spenser.
BAD BUSINESS, the latest Spenserian saga, finds fiction's most self-satisfied detective with a new client named Marlene Cowley. Cowley is a slightly difficult woman, and Parker almost immediately displays one of his many strengths as he describes Spenser's slow but steady deflation of her through the use of lighthearted, deprecating repartee in the course of extracting information. Cowley retains Spenser because she suspects that her husband, Trent, is cheating on her and wants, shall we say, to catch the cad in flagrante delicto. Spenser has an easy enough time catching Trent in compromising circumstances, but discovers not only that there is someone shadowing Trent's paramour but also that Cowley is being shadowed as well! This doesn't just pique Spenser's curiosity; it impales it.
As he is wont to do in such cases, Spenser is soon operating far beyond the boundaries of the investigation for which he was retained. All the investigatory roads lead back to Trent's employer, Kinergy, more so when Trent is found murdered in his own office. Trent's position at Kinergy was chief financial officer, and Spenser is accordingly suspicious that greed, and not passion, may be the motivating factor behind Trent's unexpected demise. When a second Kinergy employee is also murdered, Spenser begins kicking over rocks to see what comes crawling out. Hawk is there to help, as only Hawk can, and of course Susan Silverman is on hand as well, acting as soul mate, foil and even occasional Devil's advocate.
The financial element of BAD BUSINESS also permits Parker to bring Marty Siegel, the self-styled best accountant in the world, into the mix to explain some basic but questionable accounting principles to Spenser. The dialogue between Spenser and Siegel is some of Parker's best to date, instructive without being burdensome, and always entertaining. Parker in fact relies a bit more on dialogue and somewhat less on violence than he has in more recent novels, which should please those readers with more delicate sensibilities. Regardless of his underpinnings, however, Parker never lets his story flag, and when Spenser assembles the cast for the explanatory denouement, the motive, opportunity and instigator are at once surprising and obvious.
If Parker is tired of writing Spenser novels, he certainly shows no signs of it. He continues to surprise, please and entertain. What more can one ask for? A guest appearance from another Parker series, perhaps? Well, BAD BUSINESS has one of those too, at least by reference. Careful readers will be rewarded, if only momentarily.
--- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub
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on May 24, 2004
Well, not really. It's called Kinergy in the book, but it's a firm that deals in buying and selling energy, and the executives have been playing fast and loose with the accounts.
Spenser gets involved when the wife of one of the execs asks him to gather evidence that her husband has been playing around with another woman. Spenser follows the husband and finds that this is indeed true; the plot thickens when he discovers another PI has been shadowing the husband's paramour. It seems he's been asked to check up on the woman's activities by >her< husband. Before we're done, yet a third PI will turn up, trailing another female member of this menage-a-many.
It develops that the executives' wives are in the thrall of a TV personality who has convinced them that swapping of mates is the best way to keep their marriages vital and alive. Things get a little messy when the husband that Spenser was hired to follow is shot dead in his office.
There's much more -- a chief of security who's a former CIA agent, a serial killer who keeps a scrapbook of his victims, a second death that's made to look like a suicide, a female executive who fears for her life, as well as a tutorial by Spenser's CPA pal on the intricacies of keeping a company's stock price soaring despite the fact that there's no money coming in.
It all hangs together. In fact, in terms of plot, it's very well constructed . . . but it's not good Spenser. The usual cast of characters is on hand, including Quirk, Hawk, Vinnie Morris and Vinnie's double-barreled shotgun, but they have very little to do. The two murders occur offstage, the cops don't even go through the motions of suspecting Spenser, the threats from the protagonists against Spenser are half-hearted at best, Vinnie's shotgun goes unused, and Hawk gets most of his exercise carrying Susan Silverman's luggage.
There's a good deal of Susan in this one, which may be good or bad news, depending on your feelings about the character. I think she adds a lot to the series in general, but she plays too large a role here. It's Susan, for instance, who ultimately figures out whodunnit, by applying logic to the situation.
This is not a good sign. Spenser's modus operandi has always been to poke his nose in where it's not wanted, ask questions that people don't want to answer, and in general make himself annoying until somebody tries to kill him. Logic has little to do with it, nor should it.
After an unsuccessful interview with one of the suspects, who mouths off and gets away with it, Susan points out that there was a time in the past when Spenser would have popped him one. Spenser says that maybe he's becoming more mellow. Let's hope not.
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on April 21, 2004
I have not read all of the Spencer series of novels. In fact, I think I have only read one or two, so I have no comment from a historical perspective on the qualities of this one. I found the book to be an easy and fun read. Mr. Parker has mastered the art of making a book look larger than it really is, but his use of dialogue and his sense of humor appeal to me.
Things start out easily enough when Spencer is hired by a suspicious wife to tail her cheating husband. As it turns out the lady he is seeing is also being tailed by another PI and so is the lady that hired him. It seems that all of the principals are involved with one very up and coming company called, Kinergy and further investigation discovers that there is some musical bedrooms being played by the principals, all under the encouragement of a local radio personality who believes that marriage should not limit one's ability to show love for another.
This is starting to look like a bedroom farce until one of the players is shot dead in his office. The deceased is the husband whom Spencer had been hired to tail. The cheese gets more binding when the chief of security at Kinergy also turns up dead in an apparent suicide, which is more apparently another murder.
In his trademark fashion, Parker takes Spencer through the hoops along with the other characters that populate these novels and in the end, justice is done in a rather entertaining fashion.
I enjoyed it.
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on April 15, 2004
If you are new to Spenser, start with an earlier book, such as "Looking for Rachel Wallace," or what I consider his very best, "Paper Doll." You could also start at the beginning and work your way through all 31, and have a very nice time. But by no means should you begin your Spenser adventure with this book.
The plot is energetic but quite confusing - an Enron-like company pulling fiscal scams, all mixed up with some headache-inspiring spouse-swapping frenzy, huh? - but the real disappointment is, there is no one to care about here. Parker delivers his usual wit and wisdom, and that is what his fans love - the crisp dialogue, the social commentary, the gleeful puncturing of society's various bubbles. It helps to have visits from nearly every character we love (Hawk, Vinnie, Rita, and Susan who sort of grows on you) but this book lacks a crucial something that his earlier works had in abundance: sympathetic people, whether clients or others, whom you could cheer for, and bad people whom you could truly hate. I found myself having difficulty telling one supporting character from another, and by the end - when the only really bad dude is reduced to hissing like a lizard when he's caught - I didn't care how it ended, as long as it ended soon. It was kind of embarrasing, hiss hiss.
Spenser is always, always worth a read, even in a confusing mess like this. But for most people, it's probably a good idea to just take this one out of the library. I've already given my copy away, leaving me one book short of a complete set. I just don't care.
Many books ago, in "Walking Shadow," (which, in my opinion, was the first book where Parker's cracks began to show) Hawk had a wonderful line that went something like, "This is the silliest thing you ever got me involved in." I kept waiting for Hawk to say something like that in this one (pointless sexual tangles, fakes and double-fakes with the stock market, an open-marriage advocate/talk show host in love with a... Well I don't want to spoil it, whatever it is), but he didn't. The plot of "Walking Shadow" was clear and grounded compared to this. Maybe Hawk should walk off and start his own series, and replace the Spenser clones Jesse Stone (young male clone) and Sunny Randall (female clone). Most of us who are die-hard Spenser fans would follow Hawk anywhere.
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on April 15, 2004
It seems quite en vogue to take the current dirty laundry in today's white-collar world and use it as a backdrop for a novel or television show. Robert B. Parker (RBP), widely renowned for his Spenser novels, has taken a page from this trend as the setting for his latest Spenser iteration, BAD BUSINESS. And, while the company could be one of many, RBP sure sounds as though he's chiding Enron in this one.
BAD BUSINESS begins with the introduction of a new client, Marlene Rowley. Ms. Rowley is depicted as something of a haughty socialite, one borne of entitlement and very accustomed to having things her way. Veteran readers of Spenser know these types of attitude are fingernails on Spenser's chalkboard. As Ms. Rowley explains her plight, a wayward husband who she desperately wants to catch and "hang," she continues directing Spenser as to what he will do, when he will do it, and how he will do it. Spenser slowly but directly pops Ms. Rowley's balloon of self-importance in typical fashion. After the preliminaries are out of the way, Spenser agrees to follow Mr. Rowley in an attempt to catch him in the act.
Spenser has a very easy time finding, following, and ascertaining that Mr. Rowley is indeed seeing another woman. However, while bird-dogging Rowley, he spies someone shadowing Mr. Rowley's paramour. After confronting this private cop, Spenser further discovers that Ms. Rowley is also being tailed by yet another private cop. Oh, how the plot thickens. This plays directly into the Spenser psyche as he begins moving his investigation into areas peripheral to the primary investigation...and what juicy nuggets he finds! And, as he does so often, Spenser enlists the help of Hawk, the dark anti-hero, who all Spenserians have come to love. While Hawk does not flex his muscles in BAD BUSINESS, he and Spenser do engage in their give-and-take dialogue that is, as always, fabulous.
As RBP delves into white-collar criminal elements, the reader is introduced to a new character, Marty Siegel, a self-proclaimed "best accountant in the world," to read the tea leaves, as it were, given that Spenser and Hawk are clueless when it comes to financial reports. Although one would think the dialogue between Spenser and a "bean counter" would be somewhat prosaic, leave it to RBP to cast an accountant with an attitude.
RBP has recreated the drama present in so many earlier Spenser novels and has managed to weave the backdrop of current events into this offering, which, from this reviewer's perspective, gives BAD BUSINESS tangible credibility. While I love the physical barbarity of Hawk and Spenser against the "bad guys," BAD BUSINESS manages to hold the same spell with very little "B" violence.
Four and one-half stars. A great read.
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on May 10, 2004
This book comes close to vintage Spenser. He's based in Boston, not flying off to some desert town in Arizona. He brings back the gang: Hawk, Vinnie, Susan, and more.
Reading Bad Business means visiting these old friends. Like many of Parker's readers, they've become middle-aged and settled. (In a much earlier book, Spenser reluctantly dons reading glasses!) As a result, there's less room for character growth. Susan's a successful shrink, significant other and non-cook...just as she was in the last ten or so books. Hawk continues to be larger-than-life. Where can they go from here? Author Parker needs to give them some tough challenges to reveal new layers.
The plot of this novel has been amply described in editorial reviews as well as other customer reviews. I agree with those who question the financial elements of the plot, where Spenser is out of his element. He's much better when he can mete out his own version of justice.
However, Parker has managed to capture subtle aspects of corporate life with his usual wit, one beat away from satire. I've met CEO's just like Bob Cooper. Although they headed smaller companies, they put on a good show, demonstrated boundless enthusiasm even when they'd rather be eating mud, and kept their hands clean.
Even so, I wish Parker had focused more on the "growth seminars" and their aftermath. And I wish the villains had been more evil and less weasly. Nobody worth shooting here!
In my opinion, Early Autumn was Parker's all-time best book. You could read Early Autumn as a textbook of child and adolescent psychology. Other books showed Spenser's biting wit as he cut through conventions and pretentious displays. Plots were tighter and held more surprises.
Everybody's mellowed. Inevitable but Bad Business still held my attention more than most mysteries I read these days. And I'll be waiting for the next.
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on March 11, 2004
This is Parker's 31st Spenser novel. As you'd expect in a series this long, there have been high points and low points. 2 to 3 books back things had flattened out and Spenser was getting too predictable. That has changed.
In Bad Business Spenser is involved in tailing an executive at Kinergy--a company that might as well have just been called Enron and been done with it--after being hired by the executive's wife. it soon transpires lots of people are tailing lots of people at Kinergy. When the executive in Spenser's sights is killed, things get even more complicated.
After 31 novels Parker has a pretty full corral of stock characters to draw from. He's fairly sparing in this one. The focus here is more on the story.
The story's pretty good. It's more complex and suspenseful than has been the norm lately--more intricate and less predictable.
But the good news here is that Spenser himself is in very good form. Back is the wry, wisecracking, violent intellectual that has built this series into what it is. The re-energizing of Spenser is a welcome development.
Parker is also branching out a nit--from the purely noir conceptualization to a bit of homage of other great mystery writers. The ending is a group-room scene reminiscent of-and worthy of--a Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout.
All in all a very nice diversion and a very pleasant read.
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on March 28, 2004
When Spenser is hired by a woman to investigate her husband for potential divorce proceedings, he finds himself involved in a corporate snake pit. There is wife swapping, a corporate pimp, shell companies, creative accounting, greed, and a presidential wannabe who can't keep his pants zipped. Unlike the real life corporate scandals, in this case the Chief Financial Officer gets whacked. Suspicion points in various directions.
There is the usual cast of characters, with Hawk and Vinnie lending helping hands, friends with the police, Spenser's girlfriend Susan and the dog they share, and various other characters that show up, some new and some old. The killers are caught, but some guilty parties seem to walk away. There is a major loose end as the corporation seems to be left in limbo.
My oldest niece would call the novel brain candy. It is light reading for a rainy evening, a weekend at the beach, a long commute or an airline flight. It contains some details for setting up shell companies and creating ficticious assets. The novel contains language (mainly the F word in its various forms), implied sexual activity, and a couple murders, but nothing graphic. I would rate it at about the PG-13 level.
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on April 2, 2004
I don't like to give Spenser novels a bad review, because I love the characters (except Susan) and the series, and have gotten hours of enjoyment out of them. But in this novel Parker seems to have basically been on autopilot and I did not find it very well done at all.
Here we have Spenser hired by one Marlene Rowley to follow her husband Trent because she thinks he's been cheating on her. Sure enough, Spenser follows good ol' Trent to a hotel where he is doing whatever it is he does with an attractive blonde. There, Spenser bumps into another PI following the blonde. Interesting, huh? And so it goes-Trent is the CFO for a company called Kinergy, an energy broker, and winds up dead in the corporate officers. Spenser unravels a [...] fraudulent scheme going on, as well as a sex ring among the major players at Kinergy. And of course, Spenser doggedly gets it all unraveled in the end.
The key problem here is that the story reads like a cookie cutter Spenser novel. Many Spenser novels in the past few years have been trending in that direction, but they usually offer at least some small insight, interesting plotline, or some tidbit that hooks you. We have none of that here. The plot is not that interesting, the dialogue is not that interesting, even Hawk and Vinnie are not that interesting! (Plus, there were typos throughout the book, which were distracting and annoying).
A disappointing effort. But as a Spenser junkie, I can't wait for the next one!
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