Onyx reviews: Back Story by
Robert B. Parker
Some series characters evolve, age, and go through tumultuous life changes.
Secondary characters come and go. Loved ones die. New relationships enter their
Spenser, the sensitive-but-violent hero of Robert B. Parker's mystery novels,
does few of these. Though Paul Giacomin, Spenser's surrogate son, has is now in
his thirties, Spenser still behaves like a tough and rugged young man of forty.
Chronologically he has to be at least seventy, but he can still run up stairs
the full height of a football stadium and out-muscle professional killers.
When Spenser accepts cases out of town that prevent his usual sidekick Hawk from
covering his back, Parker writes in another character who is a veritable
simulacrum. The only major character to die in the series is Pearl the dog and
Parker immediately provides a substitute, Pearl II. Parker is clearly a dog
lover. Every time Spenser goes to meet a new character he first encounters and
befriends their dog. His author photo shows him with a black lab This book
contains so many canines that allergic people might do well to read it at arm's
Still, nobody does hardboiled like Parker. The dialog sizzles. The witty
repartee between Spenser and Hawk, Spenser and Susan, Spenser and Quirk or
Belson, his old police contacts, Spenser and anyone, in fact, is pure,
laugh-aloud entertainment. One chapter in Back Story is free of dialog, but
that's only because Spenser is alone.
The characters have developed such a terse method of communicating that Hawk
tells Spenser that pretty soon he and Susan are going to speak in clicks. The
erudite African American thug who is oblivious to the law and Spenser trade
racial barbs and ogle young women, self-consciously free of any political
In Back Story, Paul Giacomin's friend Daryl hires Spenser—his pay is a
six-pack of Krispy Kreme donuts—to find out who killed her mother in a bank
robbery twenty-eight years earlier. Her hippy mother had an open marriage and
got involved with some shady characters.
Though the case should have been stone cold, Spenser finds people remember it
well and discovers the answers to questions no one thought to ask. He travels to
San Diego to question Daryl's pothead father, is threatened several times by
members of the Boston mob scene, learns that certain FBI files have mysteriously
gone missing and gets police help to kidnap the daughter of a local crime lord.
All for a six-pack of donuts. What he uncovers is not at all what his young
client hoped to learn.
Jesse Stone, the protagonist of another Parker series, has a walk-on part when
Spenser's investigation leads him to Paradise, where Stone is chief of police.
Stone and Spenser are different sides of the same coin—Spenser was a former
cop who chafed under the leash of organized structure. If he'd been able to
adapt, he would likely have ended up much like Stone.
Spenser has found the one way of earning a living that embraces his violent
nature. In a moment of existential doubt after he shoots three men who intended
to kill him, Spenser's longtime lover, a psychologist, reassures him that he is
basically a good man. If he weren't, she wouldn't love him.
Back Story is a fast read, but the mystery is very well laid out and the
palpable threat to Spenser—and ultimately to Susan—builds very well.
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