The Barnes & Noble Review
break Prepare to Meet Sunny Remarkably, Family Honor is the third new novel Robert B. Parker has published in the last ten months. Even more remarkably, each of those three books represents an entry in a separate, ongoing series. Hush Money is the 26th novel to feature Spenser, still Parker's most durable and popular character. Trouble in Paradise marks the second appearance of Massachusetts police chief Jesse Stone, and Family Honor is the inaugural volume in a brand-new series featuring a feisty female private investigator named Sonya "Sunny" Randall.
Sunny is an attractive, 35-year-old ex-cop who makes her living as a detective while assiduously pursuing a secondary career as a painter. She lives alone, her only companion an undersized bull terrier named Rosie, and is recently painfully divorced from saloon keeper Richie Burke, whose father and uncle are prominent members of the Boston Irish mob and who still owns a very large piece of Sunny's heart.
Sunny is a likable, credible character surrounded by an equally credible cast of supporting players, among them her stolid, quietly supportive father, himself a retired policeman; her pseudo-feminist mother; her closest friend, a slightly neurotic professional therapist named Julie; and a gay, extremely lethal martial arts expert and restaurateur named Spike. Sonya herself represents Parker's first attempt to view the world from a feminine perspective, but she is nonethelessafamiliar, even archetypal, Parker character: a woman who is cut from the same ethical cloth as Spenser and who is determined to live her life according to a highly individual system of values and beliefs. Like Spenser, she loves good food, good sex, books, art, conversation, and friendship. (Unlike Spenser, she doesn't know how to cook, but is trying, belatedly, to learn.)
Like Sunny, the story line of Family Honor is an effective mixture of the old and the new, the fresh and the familiar. As the novel begins, Sunny has just been hired to locate the runaway teenage daughter a lost, unloved child named Millicent Patton of an upper-crust Boston family for whom "dysfunctional" would be too mild a term. Sunny quickly locates Millicent and just as quickly liberates her from the enterprising pimp who has taken her under his wing. When Millicent adamantly refuses to return her home, Sunny who can sense how damaged and deeply frightened Millicent has become takes the girl in, deliberately refusing to return her to her outraged, unsympathetic parents. In a series of scenes deliberately reminiscent of Early Autumn, one of the earliest, and best, of the Spenser novels, Sunny becomes a de facto parent and takes it upon herself to teach her house guest how to become a functional human being.
In a simultaneous set of developments, Sunny discovers that Millicent is in very real danger, having accidentally eavesdropped on a compromising conversation between her mother and a local thug named Cathal Kragan. Sunny and Millicent go underground in Spike's apartment, and Sunny begins an investigation that leads from the profligate and well-photographed sex lives of Millicent's parents to a tawdry series of revelations that threaten both the political aspirations of Millicent's banker father, Brock Patton, and the long-term plans of a high-ranking member of the Mafia's New England branch. By the time Sunny with the aid of Spike, her ex-husband Richie, and Richie's well-connected relatives has sorted matters out, her life has changed in a number of ways. By the novel's end, she has killed to defend herself, has put her life and reputation repeatedly at risk, and has been forced to reexamine the most fundamental and unresolved relationship of her life: her aborted marriage to Richie Burke.
Outside of Parker's surprising and surprisingly effective use of a female protagonist, Family Honor contains nothing that is particularly startling or new. Nevertheless, it works. Parker has always been a clean, concise stylist with an impeccable ear for dialogue and a flawless sense of pace, and this time out, he is at the top of his game. Family Honor is an intelligent, engaging, immensely readable narrative that, once begun, is virtually impossible to set aside. Sunny Randall (who is set to be played by Oscar winner Helen Hunt in the forthcoming film adaptation) is both a vital, sympathetic creation and a perfect vehicle for Parker's characteristic reflections on the importance of living an authentic, fully realized life. She is the heart and soul of one of the best novels Parker has produced in several years, and I look forward to encountering her again.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.
Read an Excerpt
One of the good things about being a woman in my profession is that there's not many of us, so there's a lot of work available. One of the bad things is figuring out where to carry the gun. When I started as a cop I simply carried the department-issue 9-mm on my gun belt like everyone else. But when I was promoted to detective second grade and was working plainclothes, my problems began. The guys wore their guns on their belts under a jacket, or they hung their shirt out over it. I didn't own a belt that would support the weight of a handgun. Some of them wore a small piece in an ankle holster. But I am 5'6" and 115 pounds, and wearing anything bigger than an ankle bracelet makes me walk as though I were injured. I also like to wear skirts sometimes and skirt-with-ankle-holster is just not a good look, however carefully coordinated. A shoulder holster is uncomfortable, and looks terrible under clothes. Carrying the thing in my purse meant that it would take me fifteen minutes to find it, and unless I was facing a really slow assailant, I would need to get it out quicker than that. My sister Elizabeth suggested that I had plenty of room to carry the gun in my bra. I have never much liked Elizabeth.
At the gun store, the clerk wanted to show me a LadySmith. I declined on principle, and bought a Smith & Wesson .38 Special with a two-inch barrel. With a barrel that short you could probably miss a hippopotamus at thirty feet. But any serious shooting I knew anything about took place at a range of about three feet, and at that range the two-inch barrel was fine. I wore my .38 Special on awider-than-usual leather belt in a speed holster at the small of my back under a jacket.
Which is the way I was wearing it on an early morning at the beginning of September as I drove through a light rain up a winding half-mile driveway in South Natick, dressed to the teeth in a blue pant suit, a white silk tee shirt, a simple gold chain, and a fabulous pair of matching heels. I was calling on a lot of money. The driveway seemed to be made of crushed seashells. There were bright green trees along each side, made even greener by the rain. Flowering shrubs bloomed in serendipitous places among the trees. The whole landscape, refracted slightly by the rain, made me think of Monet. At the last curve in the driveway the trees gave onto a rolling sweep of green lawn, upon which a white house sat like a great gem on a jeweler's pad. The vast front was columned, and the Palladian windows seemed two stories high. The drive widened into a circle in front of the house, and then continued around back where, no doubt, unsightly necessities like the garage were hidden.
As soon as I parked the car a black man wearing a white coat came out of the house and opened the door for me. I handed him one of my business cards.
"Ms. Randall," I said. "For Mr. Patton."
"Yes, ma'am," the black man said. "Mr. Patton is expecting you."
He preceded me to the door and opened it for me. A goodlooking black woman in a little French maid's outfit waited in the absolutely massive front hallway.
"Ms. Randall," the man said and handed the maid my card.
She took it without looking at it and said, "This way, please, Ms. Randall."
The foyer was very air-conditioned, even though the rainy September day was not very hot. The maid walked briskly ahead of me, her heels ringing on the stone floor. If her shoes were as uncomfortable as mine, she was as stoic about it as I was. My heels rang on the stone floor, too. The foyer was decorated with some expensively framed landscape paintings, which were hideous, but probably made up for it by costing a lot. Through the French doors at the far end of the foyer I could see a croquet lawn and, beyond that, a more conventional lawn that sloped down to the river at the far bottom.
The maid opened a door near the end of the foyer and stood aside. I stepped in. The air-conditioning was even more forceful than it had been in the foyer. The room was a man's study, and it absolutely howled of decorator. Bookshelves were filled with leather-bound books artfully arranged. The walls were done in a dark burgundy. The drapes matched the walls but with a golden triangular pattern in them. There was a fireplace that I could have stood upright in on the wall opposite. There was a fire in it. The ceiling was far above my head. There was a massive reddish wooden desk along the left wall of the room with Palladian windows opening behind it. The deep colorful rugs had been woven somewhere in the far east. A huge globe of the world was on its own dark wooden stand near the fireplace. It was lit from within. Above the fireplace was a formal portrait of a good-looking woman with smooth blond hair and the contemptuous smile of a well-fed house cat.
The maid marched across the rug and put my card on the desk and announced, "Ms. Randall."
The man behind the desk said, "Thank you, Billie," and the maid turned and marched out past me and closed the door. The man looked at my card for a little while without picking it up, and then he looked up at me and smiled. It was an effective smile and I could tell that he knew it. The little crinkles at his eyes made him look kind though wise, and the parentheses around his mouth gave him a look of firm resolve.
"Sunny Randall," he said, almost as if he were speaking to himself. Then he rose and came around the desk. He was athletic-looking, taller than my ex-husband, with blue eyes and a healthy outdoor look about him. He put his hand out as he walked across the carpet.
"Brock Patton," he said.
"How very nice to meet you," I said.
He stood quite close to me as we shook hands, which allowed him to tower over me. I didn't step back.
"Where did you get a name like Sunny Randall?" he said.
"From my father," I said. "He was a great football fan and I guess there was some football person with that name."
"You guess? You don't know?"
"I hate football."
He laughed as if I had said something precocious for a little girl. "Well, by God, Sunny Randall, you may just do."
"That's often the case, Mr. Patton."
"Ill bet it is."
Patton went around his desk and sat. I took a seat in front of the desk and crossed my legs and admired my shoes for a moment. Of course they were uncomfortable; they looked great. Patton appeared to admire them, too.
"Well," he said after a time.
"Well," he said again. "I guess there's nothing to do but plunge right in."
"My daughter has run off," he said.
I nodded again.
"She's fifteen," he said.
"My wife and I thought somehow a woman might be the best choice to look for her."
"You're sure she's run away?" I said.
"She ever do this before?"
"Where did she run to before?"
"She didn't get far. Police picked her up hitchhiking with three other kids ... boys. We were able to keep it out of the papers."
"Why does she run away?" I said.
Patton shook his head slowly, and bit his lower lip for a moment. Both movements seemed practiced.
"Teenaged girls," he said.
"I was a teenaged girl," I said.
"And I'll bet a cute one, Sunny."
"Indescribably," I said, "but I didn't run away."
"Well, of course, not all teenagers ..."
"Things all right here?" I said.
"Yes. This is what she ran away from."
"Oh, well, I suppose ... everything is fine here."
I nodded. To my right the fireplace crackled and danced. No heat radiated from it. The air-conditioned room remained cold. The windows fogged with condensation in which the rain streaked little patterns.
"So why did she run away?"
"Really, Sunny," Patton said. "I am trying to decide whether to hire you to find her."
"And I'm trying to decide, Brock, if you do offer me the job, whether I wish to take it."
"Awfully feisty," Patton said, "for someone so attractive."
I decided not to blush prettily. He stood suddenly.
"Do you have a gun, Sunny?"
"Can you shoot it?"
"I'm something of a shooter myself," Patton said. "I'd like to see you shoot. Do you mind walking outside in the rain with me?"
Other than the fact that my hair would get wet and turn into limp corn silk? But there was something interesting happening here. I wasn't sure what it was, but I didn't want to miss it.
"I don't mind," I said.
He took an umbrella from a stand beside the French doors behind his desk. He opened the doors and we went out into the rain. He held the umbrella so that I had to put my arm through his to stay under cover. We walked across the soft wet grass, my heels sinking in uncomfortably. Maybe there should be a new rule about wearing heels when I was working. Maybe the new rule would be, never. On the far side of the croquet lawn, and shielded from it by a grove of trees, was an open shed with a sort of counter across one side and a wood-shingled roof. We went to the shed and under the roof. Patton closed the umbrella. He took a key from his pocket and opened a cabinet under the counter and took out something that looked like a small clay frisbee.
"What have you for a weapon," Patton said.
I took out my .38 Special.
"Well, very quick," he said. "Think you could hit anything with that?"
There was a test going on, and I didn't know quite what was being tested.
"Probably," I said.
He smiled down at me.
"I doubt that you can hit much with that thing," he said.
"What is your plan?" I said.
"I'll toss this in the air, and you put a bullet through it."
If I did that using a handgun with a two-inch barrel it would be by accident. He knew it.
"I'll toss it up here," he said, "it's safe to fire toward the river."
He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I nodded. He smiled as if to himself and stepped out of the shed and tossed the disk maybe thirty feet straight up into the air. I didn't move. The disk hit its zenith and came down and landed softly on the wet grass about eight feet beyond the shed. And lay on its side. I walked out of the shed, and over to the disk, and standing directly above it, I put a bullet through the middle of it from a distance of about eighteen inches. The disk shattered. Patton stared at me.
"I don't need to be able to shoot something falling through the air thirty feet away," I said. "This gun is quite effective at this range, Brock, which is about the only range I'll ever need it for."
I put the gun away. Patton nodded and stared at the disk fragments for a moment or two; then he picked up the umbrella and opened it and handed it to me.
"Come back in," he said. "I'd like you to meet my wife."
Then he walked away bareheaded in the nice rain. I followed him, alone under the umbrella.