Robert B. Parker, Early Autumn (Dell, 1981)
[originally posted 12Feb2002]
It may still be a little too early in the game to call the Spenser novels some of the great twentieth-century detective fiction. There cannot, however, be any doubt as to the continuing popularity of, and loyalty to, the line of novels written by Robert Parker about the combination renaissance man/gumshoe. Over the twenty-odd years since The Godwulf Manuscript hit the shelves, Spenser fans have accumulated like mosquitoes in a light fixture. We’ve watched the characters, consistent over the space of more than twenty novels, grow and change, not just reflecting the spirit of the times (go back and read about some of the godawful getups Spenser dressed in in the mid-seventies, and you can easily imagine Spenser himself looking back and saying, “what WAS I thinking?”) but reflecting real changes in the characters themselves. Robert Parker has achieved something remarkable; he has given us a quarter century in the lives of a select few people in real-time (for the most part) without the storyline ever degenerating into soap opera.
Like all types of evolution/natural selection, though, it doesn’t all go at a steady stream. Sometimes the changes in characters come in short, uneven spurts. Early Autumn is one of those, and while I can’t swear to it, I suspect that this book has probably garnered more fans for the venerable franchise than any other. If there is a definitive Spenser novel, it is Early Autumn.
Spenser is hired by beautiful divorced socialite Patty Giacomin to recover her son Paul, who’s been kidnapped by her ex-husband. Spenser finds the job remarkably easy, at least until the ex-husband sends muscle to try and get the kid back again a few months later. Somewhere along the line, Spenser realizes that neither parents cares about the boy, he’s just a pawn in a game of spite-the-ex-partner. So Spenser does the only logical thing, takes the boy himself and tries to inject some logic into the chaotic mess of his life.
This novel is one of the rare places where everything comes together perfectly. The history that’s been laid out before us in previous Spenser novels is obviously in play, but as in most of the books in the series, the history never overtakes the present storyline. It’s there to draw on, though. Parker uses the situation to explore some of what’s come before and foreshadow things that come later; we see the beginnings of the strain on Spenser’s relationship with Susan that lead to the events a few years on, and we see the real beginnings of the loyalty that has developed between Spenser and Hawk over the past fifteen years (here, they’re still hired guns on the opposite sides of a problem, but we also get the idea that Hawk’s decisions are made with Spenser in mind). Parker is, of course, at his usual standard of writing, with the expected level of detective-novel wisecracking, lots of references to works of literature, a good deal of food talk, etc. There are few novels that satisfy the way this one does. *****