Many of the reviews I’ve read about Robert B. Parker’s 30th Spenser novel, Back Story, suggest that it is unlikely to win any new Spenser fans. This may be true, but Parker’s latest Spenser offering seems to be designed not with new fans in mind, but for old Spenser junkies like myself who have grown older along with the gumshoe, Susan, Hawk, Lt. Quirk, and the rest of the series characters. After several novels, a series become less story-driven and more character-driven. Back Story is a classic example.
Hired by surrogate son Paul Giacomin for a box of six Krispy Kreme donuts, Spenser sets out to solve the murder of a woman who died in a 1974 bank robbery. Following a trail that’s nearly thirty years old, he soon discovers that several people don’t want the murder solved — and that some people are willing to kill to keep it under wraps.
Character-wise, Parker pulls out all the stops. In addition to Hawk, Paul, Quirk and Belson, we are re-united with some of Parker’s more colorful characters: mob boss Joe Broz; his executive officer Vinnie Morris; Junior and Ty-Bop, two enforcers for black crime kingpin Tony Marcus; and Ives, the mysterious Company man (too bad Parker didn’t find a way to weave Rachel Wallace into the story). There is very little suspense in the book, but that’s never been Parker’s strong suit anyway. Action-wise, the series peaked with A Catskill Eagle, but there are just enough punches and bullets here to keep the story rolling, culminating with a shootout in Harvard Stadium. And of course, there’s the fabulous verbal interplay between Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Quirk, Frank Belson, and anyone else in earshot. Susan, whom I’ve often found superfluous to the series, shows her value here, as she helps Spenser through a brief bout of self-doubt. Hawk is — well, he’s Hawk: unfailingly loyal to Spenser and Susan, deadly to just about anyone else. And Spenser never lets us down, working a dangerous case for no money, finding out things his client (a co-worker of Paul’s) would rather not know, determined to see the case through to the end. Not many people can understand the complex moral code he lives by, but Susan does, Hawk does –and maybe that’s enough.
If you’re a fan of detective fiction and you’ve never read a Spenser novel, I would recommend that you begin from the beginning and pick up The Godwulf Manuscript, the inaugural novel of the series (I would also wonder what planet you are from, but that’s neither here nor there). The Spenser novels truly are one of the great treasures of contemporary American fiction. Back Story is a satisfying read, but it is nothing special — unless you spend a little time with the characters first.