The magic is missing in Parker's newest

June 28, 1994|By Gregory N. Krolczyk | Gregory N. Krolczyk,Special to The Sun

Port City was a small waterfront town whose heyday had long ago come and gone. Yet, despite this fall from prosperity, there was enough old Anglo money to maintain an oasis separate from the Chinese and Portuguese people who populated the area.

Part of this oasis was the Port City Theatre Company, of which Dr. Susan Silverman was a board member. As such, it was only natural that, when the artistic director of the theater company contended he was being stalked, Spenser was brought in (gratis, of course) to investigate.

Yet, no sooner does he get there than someone -- an actor -- gets killed right in the middle of a performance. Suddenly the game has a different name, and Spenser's on the case.

Unfortunately, the case won't crack. So with no other options, Spenser does what he does best: ask questions and annoy people. Annoy he does, starting with the local police chief who may or may not be on the up-and-up, and ending with a local branch of Chinatown Tong, which tries to put an end to the questions by sending a gang of terminating teens to do their deadliest.

Will Spenser be able to sidestep these inconveniences to solve the crime? Of course (but not without the help of Hawk and former mob gunman Vinnie Morris).

Will you, the reader, enjoy it? Maybe.

If Robert B. Parker has proven anything since the beginning of this mystery series, 20-some books ago, it's that he's consistently inconsistent. This is evidenced simply by comparing 1992's superb effort, "Double Deuce," with last year's disappointing "Paper Doll." "Walking Shadow" falls somewhere in between these two, although it's just a bit closer to the latter than the former.

Typically, when a Spenser novel falls short of excellence, it's because of a lack of the snappy dialogue that's become a Parker trademark. In "Walking Shadow," the dialogue is there aplenty, but the magic that makes it distinctive isn't. Even Hawk, who is present throughout the book and is usually good for a few tough-guy-cool lines or some scintillating banter, seems flat and lifeless.

Also missing is the magic between Spenser and Susan. Again, they share plenty of scenes throughout the book, including going through the process of buying and fixing up a house together. What's missing, though, is that certain quality that they share that makes theirs a relationship to envy.

"Walking Shadow" isn't a total disappointment. The plot, although certainly nothing special, is a bit better than Mr. Parker's last effort. And, of course, there's Vinnie Morris. A former Joe Broz henchman, this working-class gunman with world-class talents is a welcome addition to the cast, as he provides a rather earthy contrast to those tough-guy sophisticates, Spenser and Hawk. One hopes that he'll be back for more.

Since it contained almost all the necessary ingredients, "Walking Shadow" had the potential to be great Spenser, but the one missing ingredient is the most important: the magic.

With the magic missing, good is the best this one can possibly be.

Mr. Krolczyk is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Walking Shadow"

Author: Robert B. Parker

Publisher: Putnam

Length, price: 270 pages, $19.95

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