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Onyx reviews: Painted Ladies by Robert B. Parker

When Robert B. Parker died at his desk earlier this year, he left behind two complete Spenser novels. Painted Ladies is the first. Though Spenser has been appearing in fiction for nearly 40 years, he hasn't been aging in real time. He is rarely, if ever, outmatched in a physical confrontation, and every woman he meets finds him irresistible. His ability to quote poets and philosophers at will hasn't failed with age, though he does concede a relative lack of familiarity with computer technology. Readers still don't know his first name, but he at least admits that he has one in this book, going so far as to tell it to another character.

Novels featuring this renaissance man are all cut from the same cloth. They are short and dialog-heavy. Spenser wisecracks and flirts through interviews and interrogations, fashioning himself to be wittier than anyone else in the room. There are shootouts and fisticuffs, enough to demonstrate that Spenser is at risk, but never enough to actually injure him, as a rule. Often he is assisted in his physical confrontations by his faithful sidekick Hawk, although in Painted Ladies Hawk is conspicuously absent, supposedly in the Central Asia on a mission with the CIA, as unlikely as that seems. All the other regulars are here, though, including Martin Quirk, Frank Belson, Captain Healy and the sexpot former lawyer Rita Fiore.

When Spenser can't figure out what to do next, he takes a holistic approach, following anyone vaguely involved in the case, often producing a lead. When he's off duty, he cooks gourmet meals and professes his love for long-time partner Susan Silverman, whose name he invokes whenever one of the aforementioned women attempts to seduce him. No other characters in fiction spend as much time parsing the depth of their relationship to each other.

At the beginning of Painted Ladies, Spenser is hired by Dr. Ashton Prince, an art forgery expert, to accompany him during a ransom payment for a Dutch painting stolen from a local gallery. It should be easy work, but the drop-off goes south and Spenser, true to form, takes on the burden and the responsibility of putting matters right. He returns his paycheck from the gallery because he most definitely did not hold up his part of the bargain, returning with neither the painting nor the man he was supposed to protect.

The cops tolerate his meddling in the investigation because Spenser can do things they can't, including breaking and entering into suspects' houses and barging in on places where he has no appointment. Prince, an art history teacher at a small college, had a reputation for inappropriate behavior with his students. One of the coeds he was hitting on was the daughter of an employee of the company insuring the painting. His wife is a flake, a would-be poet with a fondness for pernod. The lawyers and insurance company associated with the gallery from which the painting was stolen stonewall him. Someone else is taking his investigation seriously, though—serious enough for international hitmen to take a couple of stabs at killing him.

As a subplot, Spenser's dog Pearl has a romantic encounter with an out-of-town yellow Lab named Otto. Pearl and Otto have several play dates and, by the oddest of coincidences, one of the dog's owners just happens to know someone who can provide vital information about the case.

Spenser's brute force methods turn up interesting information: The painting in question, the only surviving work by 17th century artist Franz Hermenzoon, was stolen by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Its history after the war was detailed in Prince's doctoral thesis, and it turns out that the dead man's interest in the painting was more than academic. The puzzle is complex and the stakes are high. As usual.

Spenser will only ride one more time, in Sixkill, due out in early 2011.

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