Originally created 08/15/04

Robert B. Parker's latest mystery a shoddy mess



Robert B. Parker's latest mystery, "Melancholy Baby," is such a shoddy mess of a novel that it is hard to believe it was written by the creator of "Mortal Stakes" and "The Judas Goat."

The characters, including the hero, are so annoying and unlikable that it is difficult to work up much concern over what happens to them, and the plot makes little sense.

"Melancholy Baby" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 296 pages, $24.95), is the fourth book in Parker's best-selling but better forgotten series featuring Sunny Randall, a former Boston cop who has gone into business for herself.

Her new client is a troubled, unpleasant college student who has begun to doubt that the couple that raised her are her real parents. She hires Sunny to find out who she really is. When Sunny begins digging, people involved in the case start getting killed.

The child's real mother, it turns out, gave birth out of wedlock and has been paying off the couple for years to raise her daughter and keep her secret. Now, faced with the possibility that the truth may come out, she immediately turns to multiple murder.

Gee. Couldn't she have tried something else first? She is, after all, a smart and successful woman. How about just giving her child a few bucks to keep her mouth shut? Surely this would have occurred to her.

But a crime novel needs murders, so the mayhem begins. Worse, one of the people the real mother has killed is the lawyer who has faithfully helped her keep her secret for nearly two decades.

There is absolutely no reason for her to do this. Parker seems to have forgotten that this stuff needs to make sense.

Meanwhile, Sunny has troubles of her own. The man she loved but left anyway is getting remarried, leaving Sunny to ponder why she cannot bear to live with anyone. To understand herself better, she turns to psychiatrist Susan Silverman, the love interest in two dozen Spenser books.

With this as his subplot, Parker inflicts us with pages of boring therapy sessions and internal monologues that purport to explore Sunny's psyche. A typically atrocious example:

"I had changed, or I was changing. I wasn't sure what I had been. And I wasn't sure what I was becoming. But I could feel the deconstruction and reconstruction process as if it were visceral."

You might wonder what that means, but more likely you'll be think: Who cares? But without the psychobabble, the thin plot would have too few words to fill the space between hard covers.

It should also be noted that Parker often does not do women well. Susan Silverman, as always, is so precious and perfect that she is more plaster saint than flesh and blood. And Sunny Randall, when she is not being a whiny emotional wreck, could be Parker in lipstick and a dress.

Although he has been eclipsed in recent years by other Boston-based crime writers, particularly the brilliant Dennis Lehane, Parker has earned respect for the many fine books in his hard-boiled Spenser series. But even the Spenser novels have gone downhill over the last decade; these days, many of them read like second-rate "Spenser: For Hire" TV scripts. "Melancholy Baby," though, is a new low.

Frank Sinatra, it is said, once bet he could make a hit out of absolutely anything. To prove it, he hit the top 10 with "Old MacDonald." Perhaps Parker has placed the same bet.