Tuesday, August 17, 2010

PALE KINGS AND PRINCES by Robert B. Parker



Some murders are pretty much what they appear to be.

That's the way it is with the initial murder in Robert B. Parker's Pale Kings and Princes. An area-wide newspaper hires Spenser to investigate the murder of one of its young reporters, Eric Valdez.   

Spenser goes to a small Massachusetts town, Wheaton, to investigate.  And then he does what he always does.  He stirs things up.  

At one point, Spenser says, "Hell, I don't know [what I'm doing], Mr. Esteva.  I don't know what's going on so I wander around and ask questions and annoy people and finally somebody says something or does something then I wander around and ask questions about that and annoy people and so on. Better than sitting up in a tree with a spyglass."

And that's Spenser's modus operandi. He doesn't investigate exactly.  He stirs things up.

In this case, it is the town of Wheaton he stirs up.  

The town itself rises up against him, seeking to stonewall him, even to kill him.  And that leads Spenser to find out what everybody else knows.  The town is a center of cocaine distribution.  The drug distribution problem has its roots in a small portion of the Colombian community in Wheaton.

Spenser's "stumbling around" leads to two more murders, and those two murders lead our intrepid detective to find out the truth in the words, "O what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive."

Don't let me mislead you here.  This book is peppered with quotes from well-known poetry, but this particular Sir Walter Scott quote is not among them.

The story concludes with Spenser having involved Hawk and Susan.  At first, I thought it might lead to something I had expected to  happen in the earlier books.  Spenser puts Susan herself in mortal danger.

And in a way, that happens, but not to the extent I thought it might. 

As you might expect, I have some observations about Parker's depiction of the small town in this book.  In fact, I am probably talking about his depiction of small towns in several of his books (though probably not all).  

Small towns are neither as unified in their outlook nor as evil as they are sometimes depicted in Parker's writing.  Here, almost everyone he comes into contact with is corrupt.

But there is much truth in what he writes.  Just ask all those small Missouri towns which became Meth havens when authorities cracked down on Meth production in the cities.  I think I read somewhere that Missouri is one of the Meth capitals of the USA.

Crooks often migrate to small towns.  

That's not exactly how it happens in this book.  The Colombians were originally brought in to take part in manufacturing.  They just brought with them the same minority of mobsters that most ethnic groups might have.  (Far be it from me to speak about my own ancestors, the Italians!)

There are a whole lot of corrupt people (of all groups) in Parker's Wheaton.

Again, I found this book quite interesting, especially because it showed me how an author I take to be a city boy (Parker) sees small towns.  It also reminded me that Susan herself is at risk because of Spenser's method of investigation.

In fact, perhaps she should be more at risk than Parker chooses to put her in the books he writes.  

There are consequences to the "stir things up" method of investigation.  That method makes some people into targets who might not need to be.  

In this book, those people are not entirely innocent, but in the previous book, at least one of those murdered because of Spenser's meddling did not deserve the death she faced.

So, Parker continues to interest me and make me think. 

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