by Bruce TierneyMay 2011
Spenser goes out with a bang
The quote “always leave them wanting more,” attributed to Walt Disney, has rarely been more applicable and bittersweet than in the case of the late Robert B. Parker’s final Spenser novel, Sixkill. The title references Spenser’s new protégé, Zebulon Sixkill, a young Cree warrior with impressive natural combat skills, riding shotgun with the Boston P.I. in the absence of Spenser’s usual sidekick, Hawk. The plot bears more than a passing resemblance to the 1920s real-life case of actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle: the mysterious death of a young party girl in a corpulent movie star’s hotel room, possibly as a result of some sexual shenanigans of the sort that may be only obliquely referenced in news reports; it falls to Spenser to sift through the hints and allegations in search of something resembling the truth of the matter. Sixkill (the book) features staccato dialogue, bordering at times on smugness, just the way Parker’s readers love it. Sixkill (the individual) is complex, markedly different from either Spenser or Hawk, but clearly cut from the same bolt of cloth, and he is definitely a character who will leave readers wanting more.
Like father, like son
Thomas Perry’s The Butcher’s Boy won the Edgar Award for best first mystery novel back in 1983. The title character, orphaned at age 10, was adopted by a local butcher—who moonlighted as a hired killer. By the time the boy reached his teens, he was well-versed in both of the family trades. Fast forward some 30 years, and the butcher’s boy is largely retired, living the good life in England as “Michael Schaeffer” with his titled wife in The Informant. Then he has the misfortune of being recognized by a trio of American mobsters on holiday in Brighton. He is able to dispatch two of the three to their just rewards, but the third one escapes. Schaeffer realizes that the mobsters will keep coming for him until either a) he is dead, or b) he has killed every member of the opposing team, a daunting task for someone out of the game as long as he has been. Nonetheless, there is nothing for it but to bring the fight to them, so he boards a flight to America and once again gets in touch with his inner killer. Relentlessly plot-driven, briskly paced and undeniably violent, Perry’s latest is the quintessential “guy book.”
One day at a time
Late one evening, Matt Scudder sits in a Hell’s Kitchen saloon with his longtime friend, barkeep Mick Ballou. Scudder, a recovering alcoholic, drinks club soda. The two are waxing philosophical about roads not taken when the name of an old school chum, Jack Ellery, pops up. “Interesting, really, the things that happened to him,” Scudder reflects. “Well, don’t stop now . . .” Ballou rejoins. Thus, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is told in flashback, peppered with details of Scudder’s struggle with alcohol, and his one-day-at-a-time efforts to work within the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program. Indeed it is this very program that precipitates the death of Jack Ellery, himself a two-year veteran in AA. The problem lies in the eighth step, in which the alcoholic makes a list of everyone he has ever harmed. In Ellery’s case, the list is long and comprehensive, and it enumerates crimes which have never been solved; it would seem that somebody from the list is Ellery’s murderer, and it is up to Scudder to ascertain which one and bring him to justice. Understandably, A Drop of the Hard Stuff is heavy on the AA component, detailing as it does Scudder’s early days of sobriety; that said, it is a compelling read, and provides some excellent backstory for one of the iconic detective series of our time.
Mystery of the Month
Jo Nesbø returns to the Mystery of the Month winner’s circle with his latest Norwegian thriller, The Snowman. Oslo cop Harry Hole is once again in the limelight, if anything a bit more jaded than before, and perilously closer to the alcoholic abyss, as well. His relationship with longtime lover Rakel is on the skids, his apartment is overrun with creeping fungus and his belief that Oslo is in the grip of a serial killer is roundly pooh-poohed by his superiors. In short, little seems to be going right for Harry Hole. He is right about the serial killer, though, and he means to prove it, but it will push him to the precipice, and threaten everything he holds dear in life.
Nesbø has created in Harry Hole a virtually perfect (by which I mean thoroughly flawed and imperfect) suspense protagonist, driven by demons from within and without, with just a speck of ragged hope that engages the reader and dares you to hope along with him. The other suspense elements are here in spades, too: tight pacing, crisp dialogue and the requisite red herrings. The Snowman is a chilling Scandinavian journey not to be missed.