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Family Honor: An Established Formula That Still Works
New Robert B. Parker Heroine a Spenser With a Skirt

Sept. 27, 1999

By Randy Dotinga

Robert B. Parker

NEW YORK ( -- Don't stop me if you've heard this one.

A wisecracking private eye from Boston. A sidekick with biceps of steel and a way with words. A drop-dead-cute canine character. Lots of New England mobsters, dumb thugs and dead bodies. To top it all off, a bit of romance.

Sound familiar? These ingredients are part of almost all recent Spenser mysteries written by Robert B. Parker, one of the best writers in the business.

But the newly published Family Honor (Putnam, $22.95) tinkers with the formula. The private eye wears skirts instead of admiring the legs beneath them; the muscle-bound sidekick likes guys and knows his way around both an upper-right cross and chicken piccata. The dog is still a she, but must cope with the indignity of being mistaken for a possum.

New novel by Spenser author introduces private eye Sunny Randall.

Inspired by a dare

The biggest mystery in Family Honor, of course, is why Parker would write a book about a woman who's virtually a twin of Spenser except for smaller muscles, a tendency to get weepy on occasion and an extra X chromosome.

Parker has said his inspiration came from Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt. She challenged him to create a female detective who's feminine and tough at the same time, a character who would be a perfect fit for an actress like ... Helen Hunt.

The author took the dare and invented Sunny Randall, a 35-year-old former officer who lives alone in Boston. She's an artist, recently divorced and the owner of a very powerful gun that makes up for her not-so-imposing physique.

Randall lives in the hope that there's more to toughness than weighing 250 pounds and being able to bench-press a sofa. "I can shoot. I can think. I am very quick," she says. "The dangerous stuff almost always boils down to people with guns. ... With guns it only matters how tough you are."

Or so she thinks.

Mission to find teenager

The novel opens with a third-person description of Randall's life, then slips into Parker's traditional first-person narration.

A wealthy and politically connected couple who have all the warmth of an igloo hire Randall to find their missing teenage daughter. She agrees to take on the mission but soon finds herself wrapped up in blackmail and murder.

Along for the ride are her friend Spike, a gay restaurant owner; ex-husband Richie, who comes from a mob family and still holds a torch for Randall; and Rosie, an English bull terrier who's not much of a terror.

As usual, Parker's descriptions of characters are gloriously catty in the style of his hero, Raymond Chandler. A schoolmistress, for example, wears "one of those hideous print prairie dresses that are equally attractive on girls, women and cattle."

Characters, dialogue enhance novel

The best part of any Parker novel, of course, is the crackling dialogue, and Family Honor is no exception. Randall can spit out snappy bons mots with the best of them. She also has a habit of responding to the world with a certain cranky literalness. When a boy learns that Rosie sometimes bites, he calls her a bad dog. "She's neither bad nor good," Randall responds. "She's a dog."

To which the child's only answer is: "Huh?"

Parker does a nice job of developing the character of Millicent Patton, the 15-year-old girl who ran away from her rich parents and became a hooker. Randall must cope with this sullen adolescent who has never learned to enjoy anything -- not the artistry of a Vermeer painting, the exhilaration of exercise or even the company of a dog who wants her tummy rubbed.

The other characters are appealing too. Unlike the gay cop who appears in some Spenser novels, Spike doesn't seem to have been created solely to show that Parker isn't homophobic. He gets his best lines while examining the decor at a mobster's house. "Design police," he declares. "Gas fireplaces are really tacky."

Same formula with feminine twist

Some parts of the story line do stretch credibility. The transformation of one nasty character into a near-wonderful person at the end of the book is just a little too remarkable.

And a cute police detective wanders in and out of the plot, not making much of an impression on either the reader or, ultimately, on Randall.

At its heart, Family Honor is the same old Robert B. Parker formula, just dressed up in new clothes and high heels.

No matter. It's still great reading. While Parker may have needed Helen Hunt for inspiration, private eye Sunny Randall does just fine on her own.

Randy Dotinga is an correspondent based in San Diego (