Massachusetts Vice

ON BOOKS

Pale Kings and Princes

by Robert B. Parker

Delacorte Press; 256 pages; $15.95

WHAT DO a .41 caliber revolver, a Hispanic social worker who knows her theories of capitalism and class struggle very well, and 300 kilos of cocaine have in common?

Spenser.

Local author Robert B. Parker turns to a popular subject in his 14th Spenser novel, the just-released Pale Kings and Princes. A reporter is shot to death and castrated in the process of doing an investigative report on a major cocaine plant in Wheaton, Mass. When Spenser tries to retrace the reporter's steps, he finds himself running into a brick wall--the town's code of silence.

The silent conspiracy runs from the police chief, Bailey Rogers, down to everybody else in the town. Only Juanita Olmos, a social worker with a mind for Marx, is willing to divulge any information. Even that information, however, is garnered with great difficulty.

As in most of the other Spenser novels, however, he gets a break just when you're convinced he's never going to get anywhere. In this story, Chief Rogers is suddenly murdered, blowing the case wide open for Spenser in two ways.

First, the chief's wife Caroline, cool to Spenser's presence before her husband's murder, is willing to be less reticent. Second, a friendly state police trooper named Lundquist appears on the scene, giving Spencer state police support in his battle with the local police.

The target of the investigation is a reputed drug kingpin named Felipe Esteva. He supposedly deals in produce, but Spenser knows him for what he really is, observing that a true grocer would not need a tough guy in a Celtics jacket for a bodyguard.

Spencer decides to test Esteva's patience by hijacking a dope shipment. He succeeds, and the take is 300 kilos of cocaine. Just how he is going to sell it back to Esteva becomes the main focus of the last third of the book.

However, as in most Spenser novels, there is also an emotional denouement. In Pale Kings it involves how Caroline Rogers, the wife of the police chief, handles both the loss of her husband and her son Brett, who just happened to be under Esteva's employ.

ALTHOUGH PARKER has shunned current events in his books with few exceptions, Pale Kings and Princes is tied to the present, making a drug ring its subject. Still, instead of self-righteous preaching, Parker skillfully steers clear and delivers a hard-nosed mystery story with all of the Spenserian tactics: annoyance, poking around, and old-fashioned surveillance.

Parker seems to have tried a new direction in his latest book, however. In his last three novels, he relied heavily upon characters whom he had previously developed. Perhaps realizing that he had gone too far in creating continuity between his books, he now reuses only three characters: Rita Fiore, Susan Silverman, and Hawk.

Susan has now developed a considerably respectable practice as a psychotherapist, and her dialogue reveals her proficiency at counseling, especially when she is called on to comfort Caroline Rogers.

The Spenser-Hawk combination is not used as much in Pale Kings as in previous novels. Instead, Hawk winds up an extra gun when Spenser needs him near the end. But their time together is quality time, with Hawk using his best Kingfisher accent and trading quips with Spenser. What little interplay there is in the novel still works well.

The novel itself is very talky, with more important conversation taking place in it than in any other of the Spenser novels.

And everything else is still there. The witty conversation, the social commentary (the way he tries to describe Susan's hip sports car is just hilarious) and the sweeping descriptions of the Wheaton area. Spenser fails to get into a fistfight in this one, but the overall reading is entertaining and well-paced. It is a much better story than you might get from watching Miami Vice.