Over the course of his 25-year career, Robert B. Parker's fiction has run the gamut from the excellent (Promised Land, God Save the Child, Early Autumn) to the uninspired (Pastime, Crimson Joy, All Our Yesterdays). Fortunately for all of us, Parker appears to have regained his stride over the last couple of years. Just a few months ago, he published the genuinely excellent Family Honor, the first entry in a new series featuring female private investigator Sunny Randall. As though energized by that experience, Parker now returns to the main line of his career with Hugger Mugger, the 27th Spenser adventure and one of the more consistently effective installments in the series.
As Hugger Mugger opens, Spenser is hired by wealthy Georgia-based racehorse baron Walter Clive to investigate a most unusual crime. Clive is the owner of Three Fillies Stables, and he has a serious problem. Over the preceding month, several of Clive's less valuable horses have been shot, one of them fatally. Following an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Hugger Mugger -- a world-class racehorse whom many consider a potential Triple Crown winner -- Clive decides that his in-house security force is overmatched, and he brings in Spenser to conduct his own independent investigation.
Leaving Boston -- and his psychiatrist girlfriend, Susan Silverman -- briefly behind, Spenser travels to Lamarr, Georgia, the scene of the crimes. Once there, he proceeds to investigate in his own, time-honored fashion: asking endless questions, stirring up trouble, turning over every rock in sight. Initially, he discovers very little about the shootings themselves but learns a great deal about the many problems -- sexual, domestic, and alcoholic -- of the colorfully dysfunctional Clives, a family that seems to have stepped from the pages of a Tennessee Williams play.
Within days of Spenser's arrival in Georgia, an event occurs that fundamentally alters the nature of the case. Walter Clive is murdered: shot, presumably, by the man or woman responsible for the earlier attacks on the horses. In the aftermath of that murder, Spenser -- his client dead, his investigation irrevocably stalled -- is summarily dismissed. He returns to Boston in a melancholy frame of mind, leaving a substantial piece of unfinished business behind.
Months later, with the case still open and the murder still unsolved, Spenser is granted an unexpected second chance to resume his investigation. Dolly Hartman -- longtime mistress of Walter Clive -- now claims Walter was the father of her 25-year-old son, Jason, and that Walter, convinced of the validity of this claim, had begun making plans to revise his will in Jason's favor. Dolly hires Spenser to protect her son's interests, and Spenser, with characteristic stubbornness, uses this new information to drive a wedge into the corrupt and secretive Clive family. Eventually, with the help of an honest Georgia cop named Dalton Becker and a gay, muscle-bound ex-cop named Tedy Sapps, Spenser uncovers the sordid truth behind Walter Clive's murder. In the ironic, open-ended conclusion to the novel, closure, of a sort, is finally achieved, and justice is imperfectly served.
In Hugger Mugger, as in most of Parker's novels, style, rather than story, carries the day. Parker's plots tend to be rambling, deliberately discursive affairs that reflect Spenser's own tendency to meander, instinctively, from question to question and encounter to encounter, until coherent solutions and rational conclusions gradually emerge. This casual approach to plotting, which might not work as well in a lesser writer's hands, is enriched immeasurably by Parker's unobtrusive mastery of language, his native humor, and his knowing, impeccably crafted narrative voice. That clean, deceptively effortless style is one of the consistent -- and enduring -- pleasures of Parker's fiction, and it rarely, if ever, falters.
If there is a single dominant irritant throughout this novel, it is Spenser's endless mooning over the many splendors -- sexual and otherwise -- of his Harvard-educated girlfriend, Susan Silverman. Spenser's obsessive monogamy has become one of the running themes of this series, and it does, on occasion, get a little wearisome. Outside of that, though, Parker is in excellent form in this one, and his characteristic virtues are on full display. Hugger Mugger is a fast, funny, thoroughly enjoyable addition to a distinguished body of work and offers further evidence of Parker's mastery of this peculiarly American form. (Bill Sheehan)