Painted Ladies: a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker
If I were Robert B. Parker, and I knew I was about to die, and I wanted to end my classic, long-running detective series, I would have chosen to end it with Painted Ladies, which would nicely bookend the series with The Godwulf Manuscript, with which it began. But I am not Robert B. Parker, and Parker did not know he was going to die, so he went on and wrote Sixkill, and then died with his last manuscript incomplete.
In this volume, Spenser is hired by one Dr. Ashton Prince, a University Professor of Art History and “a forensic art consultant in matters of forgery and theft.” A rare painting, Lady with a Finch, by 17th-century Dutch artist Frans Hermenszoon has been stolen from the Hammond museum and is being held for ransom. Prince is to deliver the ransom, and he would like Spenser along for protection. Sadly, Spenser fails in his duty: as Prince returns to the car with a package that is supposed to be the painting, said package explodes, killing Prince instantly.
Feeling he hasn’t earned his fee, Spenser returns the money and sets out to find both Prince’s killers and the missing painting (assuming that it wasn’t in the package with the bomb). One possible source of answers is Prince himself–that is, his life and expertise. It doesn’t seem like his wife is mourning him, and it turns out that Prince had an eye for the ladies, particularely the students in his class. Particularely, he was known to be close to one Melissa “Missy” Minor, whose mother (Winnifred) is the insurance “claims-resolution specialist” for the company that insured the painting.
It isn’t long after this that two men break into Spenser’s office while he’s out and wait to ambush him once he gets back. Warned by Pearl, his dog, Spenser is ready for them. Neither has any ID, but both have Auschwitz tatoos on their arm–the same tattoo on both of them, and both are far too young to have been in Auschwitz. Coincidentally, Ashton Prince was jewish, born Ascher Prinz. And he kept a copy of Lady with a Finch in his home office. Something deeper than ordinary art theft and murder is going on. Something tied to the history of Lady with a Finch, and maybe to the Holocaust. And to Winnifred and Missy Minor.
This is a fairly typical late-period Spenser in a lot of ways, tightlly-written and gripping in both the mystery itself and the action sequences. Hawk is out of the country, but a lot of the other regulars still show up (including Epstein, the local FBI agent in charge as Winnifred Minor used to be with the Bureau). You don’t need to have read any other Spenser novels to make sense of this one, but you’d be missing out on a lot if you haven’t. Recommended.
Bad Boy: an Inspector Banks novel by Peter Robinson
It has been a long time since I read an Inspector Banks novel, but Robinson has had the series on hiatus so I don’t think I missed much. This one begins with Banks on vacation in the USA, which is a pity because an old friend of the family comes by the office to talk to him. Specifically one Juliet Doyle, an old neighbour, whose daughter Erin has come home to stay for a little while. Juliet was dusting her room when she found a gun on top of the wardrobe. It definitely didn’t belong to Juliet and her husband, and it hadn’t been there before, so Erin must have brought it home with her. She definitely didn’t need it for her job as a waitress in Leeds.
Guns are much more controlled in Britain than they are in the US, so even though the gun is safely in the hands of Juliet’s husband a special unit has to be called in to enter the house and collect it, and in the process the husband dies due to a cardiac incident when he is accidentally tasered. It turns out that Erin took the gun from her boyfriend’s house the day after she saw him on the dance floor snogging her best friend and housemate. Said friend being one Tracy Banks, daughter of our protagonist.
Tracy accidentally learns that something is up, and goes to warn the boyfriend, one Jaffar “Jaff” McReady. Jaff turns on the news, sees the announcement about what happened at Juliet’s house, figures out what happened and what Erin took, and immediately takes to his heels. Tracy goes with him, seeing as she kind of fancies him and all, him being a fascinating “bad boy” and she being ready to misbehave a bit. In fact, she leads him to a safe hiding place for a little while: her father’s house, a reclusive cottage in the countryside outside of Eastvale. Unfortunately for their plans, they each forget something important: Jaff forgets that he’s carrying a sizable load of drugs belonging to “The Farmer” (so nicknamed because he’s definitely playing up his gentleman landowner imitation), the Eastvale region’s kingpin of crime (or did Jaff forget?), and Tracy forgets that her father isn’t likely to have gone out of town without arranging for someone to come water his plants. Jaff’s slip of memory results in the Farmer sending two of his more competent and vicious hitmen onto Jaff’s trail, while Tracy’s slipup results in Banks’ friend, partner and ex-lover Annie Cabot being shot by Jaff (and Jaff discovering that she hid from him that her father is a high-ranking cop). Banks comes home to his friend in the hospital and his daughter on the run with a dangerous criminal.
It can be a very nice experience to revisit a series you enjoyed but haven’t read in a while and there’s a lot of the usual to enjoy here. However, there are some issues, and readers should be warned that the Farmer’s hitmen go, as the story goes on, from intimidating young girls to sexually torturing a woman to make her husband talk (fortunately, we don’t have to watch the torture scene occur, but we do visit the aftermath). Similarely, it’s hard to say exactly when the relationship between Tracy and Jaff slips from occasionally unwilling on Tracy’s part into outright rape, but it certainly does get there before the end. Again, fortunately, there aren’t brutally detailed sex scenes, but those who are likely to be triggered should be warned.
And also, well, this is kind of hard to express, but for all that the trope is justified by the character interactions and histories, the fact is that the narrative presents us with a dark-skinned criminal threatening, both physically and sexually, a young white woman. Like I said, it’s justified in the story, but then, when the cops shoot a black man these days they always have a justification, don’t they? Some people might find this troubling, is all I’m saying.
Mildly recommended, though I suspect that starting at the beginning of the series might be best.
Mrs. McGinty’s Dead: a Hercule Poirot mystery by Agatha Christie
Poirot is retired these days, but he’s unable to resist the call to action delivered by an old friend, one Superintendant Spence. Spence had investigated the murder of an old small-town charwoman, one Mrs. McGinty. Circumstances led to the arrest and conviction of her boarder, who had lost his job and would have found even the small amount of cash that Mrs. McG had tucked away useful . . . but Spence isn’t convinced that the man is actually guilty and he wants Poirot to find out for sure, one way or the other.
Arriving in the small town and investigating, Poirot finds he has no shortage of suspects once he starts looking for them. But even with the help of Ariadne Oliver, who is in town working with a local playwright on an adaptation of one of her novels, he doesn’t seem to be making any progress. Could he be mistaken? But then, someone tries to kill him . . .
All things considered, the mystery in this one is kind of clever, relying as it does on history accidentally rediscovered. Christie doesn’t cheat, though I think she does lose track of one rather important prop (or I did) which makes an important scene kind of confusing. And, of course, it is always fun to get to hang out with Mrs. Oliver, Christie’s alter-ego and her way of gently mocking herself.