Wednesday, October 03, 2012

family traditions

Title: Spare Change
Author: Robert B. Parker
Bookmark: Lizard in a stick

Sunny Randall used to be a cop.  Her Dad Phil used to be a cop.  Now she's a PI, and he has been brought in as a consultant when a cold case reopens itself.  When the Spare Change Killer first prowled 25 years ago, he led the task force, but they never got the guy.  They did receive a few notes, addressed to Phil, commenting on his progress or lack thereof.  When Spare Change seems to have gotten back in the game, the police ask Phil to lend his expertise.  Phil asks his daughter the same.  We never really find out why, except that he apparently values her input.

I recently had a discussion in which I outlined the difference between a "crime novel" and a "mystery novel."  In a crime novel, you're just along for the ride.  You watch the players, you may even witness the crime and know the identity of the culprit, but you are not a participant.  You are just there to enjoy the story.  A mystery novel, however, is a puzzle to solve.  The clues are laid out for you the same as they are for the investigators, and it is only a matter of whether your knowledge and skill are a match to theirs; you can determine this by correctly deducing whodunnit on your own, and check your answers by reading the story and finding who actually did the deed(s).

This is a crime novel.  In an early chapter, our girl Sunny interviews the culprit, then only a suspect, and immediately declares to the team, "he did it."  From then on, it is only a matter of proving he did it.  Because crime novels require less engagement than mystery novels, I have to be really interested in the story to get excited about them.  If I'm not excited, that doesn't mean the book isn't good.  It only means I wasn't excited.  Generally speaking, I like Parker's stuff, though I have limited experience with it.  This book felt more like a diversion than an adventure.  Maybe he's just not good with female leads.  Maybe I'm not good at reading female leads, though I personally doubt that.

Here's my problem: the chapters dealing with the investigation were good.  Scenes between Sunny and her dad were also good, and even touching.  You really like her dad, and suspect that he is by far the wisest and most likable character in the Parker Pantheon, despite his choice of wife.  I also liked scenes between Sunny and her friend Spike, the self-described "toughest queer in the world."  You can't help but want to be friends with the guy, and not just because you know nobody would ever bother you in his company, ever [sic].  But scenes between Sunny and her ex-husband/ possible new lover (so boring I've already forgotten his name) fell flat and made me feel uncomfortable.  Whatever her reasons, I couldn't root for her love life.  Scenes with her unaccredited and highly unethical counselor friend Julie were worse.  I actively disliked her, and could never figure out why they were friends at all.  She seemed to exist to make Sunny's choices look good by comparison.  Sunny regularly discusses everygoddamnedthing with her therapist, Dr. Silverman, who in Sunny's mind is perfection with excellent hair.  Maybe I hated those scenes because I consider psychotherapy to be the least expeditious way possible to waste a whole lot of money, or maybe it's because as a foil, shrinks are the laziest possible solution for a writer.  Even having your protagonist talk to a fractured segment of his own mind is better.

Finally, there are the scenes with her family.  Her mother and sister are, to be blunt, idiots.  I think they're supposed to be.  Parker knows they are, and has fun with that.  He writes idiots really well.  I'm torn on these scenes.  On the one hand, they make me hate those two characters, but on the other, they're probably the most realistic, true-to-life scenes in the entire book.  In one chapter, four characters are talking simultaneously, having two or three separate conversations, blithely ignoring questions by people outside those little chats.  It was great, and reminded me of how big groups of family actually talk, but the constant preening and attention-seeking by people (the mother and sister) who have no grasp of the scope of the world made me want to tell them to shut up and leave so the grown-ups could talk.  But I think that was Parker's goal.

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posted by reyn at 2:07 PM


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