Feeble plotting flattens 'Paper Doll'


Somebody killed Olivia Nelson just outside her aristocratic Beacon Hill home. The killer used a framing hammer, which had a nice, long wooden handle for added leverage, hitting her in the head at least five times. The police asked all the right people all the right questions, and all they got for their trouble was phone calls warning them to either solve it or drop it. Apparently, Boston's upper crust didn't like cops nosing around.

Dismayed by the police's lack of progress, Nelson's husband, Loudon Tripp, asks Lieutenant Quirk to suggest an alternative, someone who could hunt down the killer and bring him to justice. Quirk recommends Spenser.

Spenser takes the case and soon learns that Olivia Nelson was a picture-perfect person, living the picture-perfect life. At least that's what the Tripp family wants everyone to believe.

And though it takes only a slight bit of probing for Spenser to punch holes in the illusion, what's revealed is even more confusing. So, after exhausting (or at least irritating) all of the local leads, he heads to Olivia Nelson's birthplace: Alton, S.C.

No sooner does Spenser arrive in the small Southern town than three things become abundantly clear: Someone's got something to hide; he's not likely to find out what it is without a lot of trouble; and, Olivia Nelson almost certainly isn't dead.

After reading some of Robert B. Parker's earlier mysteries, such as "Stardust," "Pastime" and especially the superb "Double Deuce," I guess something of a letdown was to be expected. After all, it's not exactly earthshaking news to say that Mr. Parker can be a bit inconsistent. And "Paper Doll" definitely is a letdown.

Fortunately, as a letdown, it's not that bad.

The main problem with "Paper Doll" is its plot. Although plotting isn't usually considered a strength of Mr. Parker's, this one is so ,, incredibly transparent that the reader can't help but grow impatient waiting for the suddenly myopic Spenser to figure it all out -- and it's a pretty long wait.

Another minus is that Hawk is only around for three pages. Tha means that the opportunities for Spenser to engage in the snappy repartee that most certainly is a forte of Mr. Parker's are severely limited. Of course, Spenser does get out a few good lines, but without Hawk . . .

On the positive side, Spenser and Susan (and Pearl, thei German shorthaired pointer) do share several nice scenes, and Martin Quirk makes more than his usual cursory appearance. "Paper Doll" also introduces Lee Farrell, a gay police detective who looks as though he could become a recurring character. But in all, the novel contains nothing of note.

If you've never read any of the Spenser novels (and everyone most certainly should), and are looking for a great place to start, check out last year's "Double Deuce." If that doesn't hook you, nothing will. And if, on the other hand, you're already a fan, well . . . I guess you'll just have to do the same thing I did: enjoy "Paper Doll" for what it's worth, and wait till next year.


Title: "Paper Doll"

Author: Robert B. Parker

Publisher: Putnam

0$ Length, price: 223 pages, $19.95

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