Thursday, October 17, 2013


Capitalizing on the success of the 2009 TV miniseries based on his novel The Last Templar, Raymond Khoury turned FBI agent Sean Reilly and his girlfriend archaeologist Tess Chaykin into a franchise with 2010's The Templar Salvation. In 2011, Khoury moved the pair away from medieval-based Vatican intrigue with the southern-California-based The Devil's Elixir.

Reilly answers a call from an old girlfriend who has just been attacked, along with her four-year-old son Alex. He flies to San Diego to help her and soon finds himself involved in a deadly struggle with a sadistic and ruthless narcotics cartel leader who seems to be able to reach inside Reilly's law enforcement world at will. Reilly doesn't know if he can trust anyone -- including himself and his own past -- but he will have to find some way to take the cartel leader down before the leader gets to him and begins production of a lethal new psychotropic drug that could mentally cripple millions.

Khoury, who has worked extensively as a screenwriter, lays out great action scenes and has a style that doesn't get in the way of the narrative, even if it's not going to be on the the PEN prize people's radar. Elixir seems well-researched and has a good number of keep-you-guessing twists, but it also has some extraneous scenes and characters that start episodes which either never resolve or turn out to be incidental. Khoury also succumbs to the lecture temptation a couple of times as he explains some aspects of the drug trade as well as how many hallucinogenic drugs work in the body, and the last act of the book takes a sudden weird X-Files turn that makes that part of the ride a lot bumpier than it should be.
Robert B. Parker's private investigator Spenser met his longtime love Susan Silverman in the series' second novel and they were paired off as a couple in the third. But in 1981's A Savage Place, Spenser slept with a woman he was guarding, newscaster Candy Sloan, and that infidelity has continued to echo in their relationship. When 1983's The Widening Gyre opens, Susan is in Washington, D.C., working as a part of the doctoral degree she is earning from Harvard, and the strain of earlier events and the separation is telling on Spenser.

He accepts a case working security for Massachusetts Representative Meade Alexander, who would like to be Massachusetts Senator Meade Alexander. The Alexander campaign has received threats and harassment, and Spenser begins his time with them by reasoning with some of the harassers in his accustomed style. But Meade Alexander tells Spenser he's being blackmailed to drop out of the race -- his wife Ronni has been indiscreet and a videotape will be released unless he supports his opponent. As Spenser digs into the blackmail, he finds organized crime connections that will make his job that much more dangerous. He'll also find himself confronting some of his personal issues as he tries to adjust to some of Susan's decisions.

No small amount of Spenser fandom hates Susan Silverman, and there's no denying that in later years Parker used Spenser's interactions with her as a kind of crutch to pad his narrative. Gyre also takes a much deeper dive into the psychotherapy arena than Parker had done previously, and not everyone who wants to read tough-guy private eye fiction is as fascinated by that path of self-discovery as was Parker. He will give Susan and Spenser similar relationship issues at least twice more during the series in books that kind of echo the three-book arc begun here in Gyre.

And in Gyre, for whatever reason, the issues and the conflict carry much more weight. Possibly because the issues are not all on Susan's side and because Spenser himself wonders about whether or not he has said and done the right thing -- and whether the right thing is enough to do. Yes, the main case of the story is almost secondary, but Spenser's work on it parallels his discussion with Susan and his feelings about the attenuating of their relationship reflect in his work on the case.

Parker always writes of the head and the heart as much as the fist, but in Gyre he interweaves them better and more closely than he does in almost any other novel, and creates a conflict with no certain resolution. Even the title, taken from W.B. Yeats' The Second Coming, offers a mix of hope and uncertainty -- Yeats' speaker sees a Second Coming approaching, but the condition of things makes him wonder whether what comes will bless or curse the world it enters. Spenser learns that Susan seeks a way to renew herself, but he does not know whether the new Susan will have a place for him, or that he will want to fill whatever place she does have.

This kind of introspection wouldn't be Spenser without the requisite smart-aleck retorts and tough-guy attitude, along with a brief scuffle or two, which Parker provides. Gyre's heavy emphasis on Susan, the Susan-Spenser relationship, psychological issues and Spenser's own self-examination may turn off fans who want their private eyes punching, drinking and scoring the dames. But those features actually make it one of the best and most interesting of the many Spenser novels, even when considered as a part of the earlier third of the series that represents its high point.

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