Top positive review
(4 1/2) The Secrets of the Rich and Famous
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.