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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.