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Onyx reviews: Hugger Mugger by Robert B. Parker

Spenser is back and out of his usual element. In Hugger Mugger, Robert B. Parker sends the detective from Boston to Lamarr, Georgia, on the outskirts of Atlanta. Spenser is also without his regular assistant, Hawk, who is off in Paris on vacation, possibly to avoid the necessarily complex plot manipulations required to get him down south.

Hugger Mugger is a valuable thoroughbred belonging to Walter Clive, owner and figurehead operator of Three Fillies Stables. The real proprietor of Three Fillies is Clive's youngest "filly," Penny, who accompanies her father to Boston to enlist Spenser's help. Three of their horses have been shot—one fatally—and the Clives are afraid that someone intends to harm Hugger Mugger, who has the potential to be the next Secretariat.

Within his first few hours on the job, Spenser is engaged in double entendres with the Clive women and delivers his obligatory lesson of fisticuffs to put one of their husbands in his place at a party held to introduce him to the estate. He is an outsider in the south and has to find his way around the small community, where the Clive name is synonymous with money and power. The local police, though competent, are unwilling to investigate the Clives. Spenser has no such scruples and digs into the family and local history to try to figure out why someone seems to want to harm the Clives' main asset.

Spenser lays bare all of the family secrets, the usual array of proclivities associated in fiction with rich southerners: infidelity, alcoholism, depravity and an entangled family tree. The Clives would fit well into any Tennessee Williams play. In addition to Penny, the other two fillies are SueSue and her co-alcoholic husband Pud, and the elder Stonie, who is married to Cord, a man more comfortable in the company of young boys. The girls' hippie mother left home to wear flowers in her hair in San Francisco when Penny was fifteen and has been replaced by girlfriend Dolly Hartman, who has a mysterious history of her own.

A murder puts an end to the attempts on the Clive's horses, leaving Spenser wondering whether the attacker was scared off or whether the horses were ever the intended victims of the campaign. His investigation is cut short, though, when Penny dismisses him from the case. Under different circumstances, Spenser might feel duty-bound to continue an incomplete case even when fired, but he has been doing a lot of pro bono work lately. He does the fiscally responsible thing and returns to Boston to take on other cases. The prolonged absence from his partner, Susan Silverberg, probably made his decision easier.

Several months later, the case is still open and a member of the Clive family rehires Spenser to solve the murder. He returns to Georgia, where he finds that his welcome at Three Fillies has worn out and the family affairs have taken a strange twist.

Parker does not break any new ground with Hugger Mugger. Spenser is still a fast-witted ruffian with a heart of gold and daggers for words. He forms a string of unlikely allies, including a gay ex-cop, now a bouncer at a gay club, who serves as a temporary replacement for Spenser's regular sidekick, Hawk. Faced with a steady stream of temptresses, he remains faithful to Susan, but his professional ethics do not prevent him from breaking the law so long as the end justifies the means.

In a Spenser novel, the means by which the hardboiled detective solves the case are usually more interesting than the end itself.

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