Spenser: “Small Vices” by Robert B. Parker

After completing a major project for work, I decided to reward myself with reading another Spenser book by the late Robert B. Parker (1932 to 2010). Parker’s books are enjoyable and I was dying to read another older, detective novel with some humor.

I picked up “Small Vices” because it started off great which means it started off with dialogue that pulled me in immediately. “Small Vices” is the 24th book in the Spenser series featuring the Boston PI and the third novel I’ve read in the series. The short version of this review is that I enjoyed it very much and would recommend to those who have never read any Spenser books.  The series, well, some of them, have staying power. The longer version of the review is below the break.

Small Vices“Small Vices” is one of his better Spenser stories – says me- as it deals with a myriad of social issues and social criticism including racism. The story is about Spenser being asked to look deeper into an 18-month-old case involving the murder of a college student, Melissa Henderson. The man who was convicted of the crime, Ellis Alves, is black and the lawyers for his case think that he was framed.

Ellis Alves has been in jail for four years for a crime he didn’t commit but he’s no angel. He’s a career criminal who is characterized as being arrogant and hostile. Spenser’s partner, Hawk, explains that when “you’re in for life, hope will kill you.” So Alves isn’t looking to make any new friends and isn’t looking for any handouts and he certainly doesn’t expect to get out of jail anytime soon.

The story moves at a rapid pace and the prose is smooth and immersive. There isn’t a chapter where beer, wine or the consumption of food is not mentioned. There’s plenty of action sequences as the investigation into the college student’s death brings Spenser into the world of the rich and the powerful and into the path of a contract killer who’s being paid to warn him off the case and will go so far as to kill Spencer if it comes to that.

So, Spenser has to unmask a cover-up,  fight his way through corruption while ducking a few bullets coming his way.

Spenser is a wisecracking private detective and I like him. Good thing I do since he’s the narrator taking us through this 328 page story. He’s a  hero who embodies much of the traits of honor, honesty and integrity of detectives. I don’t think he has any vices only that he is quick-witted and always has something smart to say. The added humor is good at alleviating the tension and mood.

I read that Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe inspired the Spenser creation, another detective I’ve yet to meet. What I really love about this series is that Spenser has a life outside of his PI business. He’s in love with a Harvard grad: Susan Silverman. His relationship with her doesn’t grate on my nerves like it does other readers who wish the two had never met. Think a lot of the resentment of Susan comes from thinking that detectives should live some solitary life and not have a romantic relationship. I remember reading a paper about that whole thing but it goes beyond the scope of this post.

The resolution to the mystery wasn’t a big surprise as to “who did it.” The motive was the mystery. But then I don’t really read these books for the mystery. I really enjoy the characters and setting which can at times read like a travelogue of Boston. Between Susan, Hawk and Spenser, they make up the nucleus of the series and I enjoy their interactions. The dialogue is great as well.

I’ve read a lot of reviews of the series over the past years and the biggest criticisms are those involving the social issues in his books. Well, that is the point of my reading mystery in the first place is discussing and exposing a lot of society’s ills and seeing justice served.

“Small Vices” was first written in 1997 and the reading of it is still relevant today in terms of race and social injustice and how money influences justice. The story does have its share of racial language/epithets that can be uncomfortable. Overall, I enjoyed it. It’s 24th in the series but it does stand-alone very well, says me, again.

Corrections: Main character’s name was spelled wrong in the title and the review. I let Google auto-correct everything and I shouldn’t have. Of course no one said anything or alerted me to the error. An embarrassing mistake but I am moving on. Next.

About Keishon

I love reading crime fiction.
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10 Responses to Spenser: “Small Vices” by Robert B. Parker

  1. Keishon – I think you put your finger on what makes Parker’s work good even over time. There’s solid dialogue, some wit, and (I think) welel-developed characters as the series evolve. As you say, some are better than others, but most of them are well worth reading. Glad you liked this one.

  2. Col says:

    Congrats on the work front, hopefully it now frees you up to read and blog more! I never stuck with Spencer long enough to read this one. From memory all the ones I read seemed to be around the 200 pages mark, but I could be wrong. Low 300’s isn’t excessive though.
    I liked the flippant wise-cracking, but I guess I tired of it eventually. Wasn’t that irked by Susan, liked Hawk – seemed a bit of an enigma. Reminds me to a degree of Pike in the Robert Crais – Elvis Cole novels.
    There’s a helluva lot worse you could be reading.

    • Keishon says:

      Yes, there is a helluva a lot worse I could be reading.
      I’m reading Galveston by Nic Pizolatto and so far it is very good.

  3. Keishon, thanks for this review and for taking me through the Detective Spenser series, especially since I recently acquired my first Robert B. Parker novel titled “Early Autumn” that I plan to read soon. I’ve never read the author before.

    • Keishon says:

      Hope you find him as entertaining as I do, Prashant. Oh and I haven’t read Early Autumn but will make sure to read it next.

  4. Elena says:

    I had never heard neither of the author nor about the books. As a crime fiction fan, I have realized that you either love American crime fiction or British crime fiction and people in those two fields tend to remain in them. What has been your experience regarding this?

    Also, I think the Detective Spenser series sound like a perfect summer reading.

    • Keishon says:

      Hi Elena,

      I love both (British and American) crime fiction and the earlier the better. My passion right now is to read the early classics of both. Most of the time these early books are usually some of my best reads of the year. As for Robert B. Parker, his Spencer books are lengthy. I skip around of course but in case you were wanting to read the first book, it’s The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). Plan to read it one day soon.

  5. TracyK says:

    Hi, Keishon. I have just got back from a week’s trip, so missed a few posts.

    I haven’t read but one Spenser novel and it did not move me to read more. That was years ago. I might like them more now. But too many other authors and books beckoning.

    Nice review, it does convince me Spenser could be worth trying again.

    • Keishon says:

      Hi Tracy! Hope you had a lovely trip. Yes, some Spenser books are definitely better than others. So far I’m 3 for 3 with reading this one and “The Judas Goat” and “Mortal Stakes.”

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