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Melancholy Baby

Robert B. Parker

G.P. Putnam's Sons/Penguin Group

US Hardcover First

ISBN: 0-399-15218-0

296 Pages; $24.95

Publication Date: September, 2004

Date Reviewed: November 30, 2004

Reviewed by: Terry D'Auray © 2004



Mystery, General Fiction

'Melancholy Baby' is the fourth in Parker's series featuring Sunny Randall, female Boston P.I., a/k/a Spenser in a skirt. Parker was granted Grand Master status in the mystery genre many years back for his Spenser series and is the hands-down successor to Chandler in the hardboiled detective biz. That he can also effectively write a fully-realized and believable, semi-hardboiled female PI simply adds icing to his already highly-decorated literary cake.

Parker is probably as close as you'll find to a "brand name" in the mystery world, with a uniquely identifiable narrative combo of character-plot-and-dialogue that stands out unmistakably in anything he writes. He creates a strong, well-defined central protagonist (male or female), surrounds that character with a swirl of wonderfully drawn, often eccentric supporting players, gives them all an intriguing, contemporary-themed mystery to unravel, and lets them tell the story in dialogue that sizzles and amuses.

These signature elements are all readily visible in the Randall series. Sunny is a complex, conflicted, independent but emotionally vulnerable protagonist. Parker manages to get all the feminine trappings right - he's either eerily perceptive, or he's getting some help with the weighty issues of makeup and designer wardrobe. Sunny is surrounded by Richie, her ex husband and still sometime lover; Spike, her gay, tough-guy friend and helpmate; and Rosie, her bull terrier, who gets more text and attention than many of the majors. (Parker must be one of those goofy gaga animal lovers with whom many of us can relate.) In 'Melancholy Baby', Sunny is hired by 21-year old Sarah Markham to find her biological parents, despite the fact that her "parents", the couple who raised her, insist that she is not adopted, but are strangely unwilling to prove it. What appears at first to be immature malarkey quickly turns into a deepening mystery and ultimately into murder.

While investigating the Markham family, Sunny is personally reeling from the discovery that Richie, her ex husband, has remarried, sending her into a tailspin of loneliness and self-doubt. To cope, Sunny starts seeing a shrink, none other than Susan Silverman (Spenser's girlfriend). Susan is presented here in her professional arena as mature, confident, and perceptive caregiver, and she's described from Sunny's perspective, not Spenser's. It's an interesting and quite successful cross-pollination from the Spenser series to the Randall one. (If series-hopping characters remain in Parker's bag of tricks, there's no better candidate than Eugene Corsetti, the New York cop introduced in 'Melancholy Baby', who's a classic Parker creation - arrogant, intelligent and full of attitude. He'd be a great friend or foe in any Spenser/Hawk story.)

Parker's literary magic is dialogue - he paints character, attitude, setting and situation with but a few, well-chosen and often witty words. To read Parker is to revel in the sound of his language, its cleverness and telling observation. His dialogue is consistently smart, snappy and rhythmic, but most uniquely, it hits its target squarely and then stops! No embellishment, no excess, the opposite of voluble, Parker's dialogue is cadenced, complete and compact, and it always packs a wallop.

Parker often deals with family themes - relationships between parent and child, child abuse and the like - and here he examines these themes from two perspectives. Sarah faces a dramatic upheaval and the task of building a new self; Sunny develops a more mature understanding of the dynamics of her family and her place among them. 'Melancholy Baby' attains a touching emotional depth as Sunny and her father discuss their family over apple pie in a diner or as Sunny and Sarah discuss the challenges of simply growing up. Crisp, friendly and clever banter is supercharged with unabashed affection, love and dawning understanding.

'Melancholy Baby' is a double-barreled identity-quest story, one about roots, family, and the painful process of carving a unique personal identity. It's a quest Sunny and Sarah undertake both together and separately as they unravel the meaty mystery at the core of the narrative. It's a quick, classy read, the thoroughly satisfying output of a mystery master at work.