This fairly early installment in the saga of Boston-based P.I. Spenser is also among the most admired books in the series. Spenser, as critics have noted, is not so much a private detective as he is a private avenger. He doesn’t break alibis; he busts heads. Instead of tracking down clues using his intellect, he vanquishes bad guys using his fists. Which isn’t to say that Spenser lacks wit. His first-person telling of this tale, about the kidnaping of a lesbian-feminist writer whom he had been hired to guard, abounds in clever dialogue and wry patter. That, along with Parker’s high-octane ability to move briskly from scene to scene, is what distinguishes the Spenser canon as a whole and this entry in particular. Far less impressive is Parker’s approach to plotting and characterization. In this instance, the story and the people who drive it are too thinly drawn to be compelling in their own right, and too rudimentary to generate a worthy challenge for Spenser. Even his sparring with Rachel Wallace—she assails the male protective instinct; he defends it—has a stagy (and now-dated) quality. Parker endows Spenser with a brute mastery of everything and everyone around him, and thereby stacks the narrative deck all too clearly in the avenger-hero’s favor.
[ADDENDUM: For many years, I lived in or near Boston, and I’m generally drawn to fiction that conveys a strong sense of any place where I’ve lived or that I’ve visited. So I very much wanted to like the Spenser novels. I tried a few of them, and they were a disappointment. I once read a line by John Updike, in a review of a book by J.D. Salinger, that struck a chord with me. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. … He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation,” Update wrote. That captures my response to a fair number of detective-genre writers who use series heroes, and none more so than Parker. He just loves Spenser too much. And for me, at least, it’s tiresome to spend time with a character who is so plainly a creature of authorial wish fulfillment.]