Wednesday, April 27, 2011

SMALL VICES by Robert B. Parker

Sometimes there is little distance between good and evil.

For me, Robert B. Parker's Small Vices is one of the more memorable books in the series so far.

Strong heroes require strong adversaries.  Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty.  Carella and the Deaf Man.  Spenser and the Gray Man.

Spenser's lawyer friend Rita Fiore hires Spenser to investigate what a member of her law firm sees as a wrongful murder conviction. It is not that the man convicted is a good man.  He is a violent man who, if set free, will surely commit another terrible crime and go back to prison. 

It is just that a young lawyer in Fiore's firm is sure the jury convicted the man because he was a convenient black person on whom to lay the blame and because she, his lawyer, was incompetent.

So Spenser, being Spenser, takes on the case to free a dangerous convict or at least to determine whether he should be freed.

Along the way, Spenser comes across a rich family, a rather clumsy cover up, and the Gray Man, a stone-cold killer, an even more dangerous murderer than Hawk would be.

The Gray Man wins the first round of the battle, almost killing Spenser and forcing Spenser, Susan, and Hawk to hide for a year.

Even when Spenser has come back (after gruesome rehabilitation), he is changed.

In the end, everyone at the heart of the story is tainted with evil.  There is little right or wrong. There is just the code. 

Spenser wins the second round but, for reasons you can read about, Spenser lets the Gray Man go knowing the Gray Man will come back and try to kill him on another day.  Spenser has given his word, and Spenser keeps his word.

The rich people have influential lawyers who will get them off, probably with little punishment.  Their lives have been destroyed, but still, they will get off easy.

In this book, it is not the plot that matters.  It is the people, who they are and what they do when they have no good choices. 

No one is on the right side of all of this.  Even the relationship between Spenser and Susan changes because of all that happens.  They are still together, still in love in that peculiar way that only Spenser and Susan can be in love, but things are different.

Small Vices makes it clear that the Spenser code often doesn't have to do with what is clearly right and wrong, or in a way, with what is clearly good and evil.  It has to do with keeping your word, being who it is you say you are, living to fight another day, even if that means you will again face the most dangerous adversary you have so far faced.

Sometimes I thought this book was going in a direction which made the whole thing too easy.  Spenser overcomes the Gray Man fairly easily in the second round.  But the book makes it clear that the second round is not the last round.  Without doubt, there is more to come.  

PS If you want to make a comment, I'd be interested in seeing your list of the greatest villains in mystery story history.


Naomi Johnson said...

What do you think of the news that Ace Atkins will continue to write the Spenser series? And the screenwriter for the Jesse Stone movies will now write that series of books?

Joe Barone said...

I hadn't heard that.

I won't read them. I don't much like that kind of thing. I never read the Nero Wolf novels written by another person.

I do like creative alternatives--Dave Zeltserman's Julius Katz, for example. That's not a rewrite. That's a whole new thing which I think is wonderful.

I note that you are reading the new Katz book. I look forward to reading it when it comes out in May, and I'll be interested to hear what you have to say about it.

Richard R. said...

I've read most, but not all of the Spenser books, but not this one, I think. Where does it come in the series, one of the later ones?

I agree about new writers taking over series. Since I slipped away from the series when the Parker books seemed to become much thinner both in page count and content, I don't consider myself a hard core fan, but I won't read someone else's take on the character. If they try to match Parker's style and plotting, it's likely to fail, if not, it's a failure from the first word.

Villians? How about Arnold Zeck? Also Blofeld from the James Bond books, Moriarity, plus any sick-minded serial killer you care to name from the books by John Connelly or Val McDermid.

Joe Barone said...

I think this is book 25. I too fell away from the series for the same reasons as you. When he died, it occurred to me that he had built a strong whole series regardless of what I saw as some weak books and one almost-so-thin book I felt cheated. I decided to read the whole thing through kind of as my own memorial to him.

I hadn't thought of the Bond villains. They are unique and truly villainous. You have made some really good additions to the list.

I suspect most of the ones we list will be more effective villains than the Gray Man turns out to be.

Thanks for your long comment.

Yvette said...

I remember this book. (I'm a big Spenser fan.) It's one of my favorites even if it is harrowing. The Gray Man comes back in one of the last books - last year or the year before - another terrific book - one of Spenser's best. I'm trying to remember the title, but it escapes me.

My favorite Spenser books beside these two are: EARLY AUTUMN, PAST TIME and LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE.

Ace writing Spenser? I don't know. I don't usually like this sort of thing. But I do like Ace's writing. I'll have to think about it. Maybe he'll kill off Susan Silverman. For that alone, I'd read them. HA!

When it comes to villains, I've always liked Professor Moriarity and also the villains created by Dick Francis, especially in the earlier books. They are often so banal and so hideously nasty.

Joe Barone said...

I'm still thinking about which are my favorite books though I think one of them is PAPER DOLL. I suspect most of us would have LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE on our list too.

Joe said...

I appreciated your mention of Dick Francis. There was a time when I read a potful of those. He was really skillful at creating deceptive non-villainous-appearing villains.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I'll use this one on Friday, Joe. I think it is ridiculous to continue a series that had worn itself out to answer Naomi's question. Ace is a terrific writer but this isn't right to me.