I knew I’d be disappointed in The Professional by Robert B. Parker. Right up front, I’m going to say it: I love Parker’s Spenser novels. I devour every one that comes out like a kid ransacking his Halloween candy. But in recent years, the candy has gone stale. In 1974, Parker made the detective genre relevant again with The Godwulf Manuscript. The singularly named protagonist has worked his way through nearly four decades, and I’m now older than Spenser was in his first appearance.
Yikes. The trouble is that Parker’s work has become thinner than tissue paper, especially in his last several offerings. While Parker has a strong handle on Spenser, sidekick Hawk, and our hero’s love interest, Susan Silverman, the plots rarely hold up to strong scrutiny. I can find mindless entertainment on TV — I hold Parker to a different standard. After all, he wrote two truly great novels: All Our Yesterdays, a multi-generational story that shows how the sins of the father (or grandfather) often fall upon the son (or grandson); and Love and Glory, an homage to The Great Gatsby. The latter is good enough that I pull it down from the bookcase every couple of years for a re-read.
But back to his latest and not-so-greatest. The Professional is the same bit of light fluff Parker’s been putting out by the bucketload the last several years. The dialogue is still sharp, the characters witty and insightful. The only problem is that they’re imparting the same talking points they’ve been chewing over for the last decade or so. You have to go all the way back to 1997’s Small Vices to find a really good Spenser novel. The closest he’s come in recent years has been Hundred Dollar Baby (2006), and even that one fell flat in most places. I give it high marks for its resolution — even though the emotional turmoil that most people would have felt at the rather sad ending hasn’t been discussed since.
And that’s the key thing wrong with the Spenser novels these days. Spenser is a character set in stone. Come what may, he doesn’t change. In the earlier books — the best ones — he grows as a person with each and every outing. His fundamental nature didn’t change, but each novel brought forth a more nuanced character. I’m not sure when that stopped, but it’s to the detriment of the character, to the books, and to Parker’s legion of fans. The Professional may be the worst Spenser yet — not enough to turn me off the series, but a definite downturn in quality. If a first-time novelist had submitted this for publication, it would have been summarily dismissed, which is what the prospective reader should do.