Spenser fans everywhere are going to love this book. Although Spenser was raised by his father and uncles in Laramie, Wyoming, 14-year-old Bobby Murphy almost comes closer to the childhood many longtime fans envisioned for Robert B. Parker’s signature character.
Bobby Murphy is a wonderful, though idealistic, protagonist. He’s more or less the brains and eventual leader of a five-man junior varsity basketball team called the Edenville Owls. They ended up calling themselves that because the only uniforms they could find were all yellow and featured owls on them. He’s on the cusp of young adulthood, just starting to notice the finer intracacies of the world: such as the opposite sex and problems in the adult arena that normally stay behind closed doors.
After his last teacher was removed from the school, Bobby and his class got a new teacher: Miss Delaney. Miss Delaney is young and beautiful, the perfect teacher for a young boy on his way to becoming a man to fall in love with. However, Miss Delaney also apparently has some dark secrets.
While in detention, Bobby and one of his friends sees Miss Delaney arguing with a man. After a heated exchange, Miss Delaney slaps the man. Bobby shouts at the man to leave her alone, then he and his buddy charge to the rescue but are made to return to detention. Later Miss Delaney asks Bobby to forget he ever saw anything. In just those few moments, Bobby’s plunged into a mystery that will tear away a lot of his remaining innocence as he pursues the truth of who the man is and exactly what’s going on.
Three main storylines weave throughout the book: the mystery involving Miss Delaney, Bobby’s work to bring his basketball team to the state tournament, and his evolving relationship with Joanie, a girl he becomes friends with that eventually comes between him and Nick, one of his best friends. Any one of the stories would be enough to keep a reader turning pages. That they’re all together and complement each other well is just excellent writing.
Parker is going to take a lot of heat over Bobby, though. Bobby thinks like Spenser. He acts like Spenser. And both characters are troubled over the same vagaries of life. But these are the themes that Parker constantly writes about.
Besides this touchstone with the Spenser series, Bobby tends to be a little more adult than he probably would be. Especially at that time. Kids didn’t even know what the word “pregnant” meant and never heard it in the home. The time period wasn’t a clean-cut as “Happy Days,” but Bobby wouldn’t have been as experienced. But the mystery had to be something that today’s kids would understand as well.
Readers familiar with Parker’s work are going to find a lot of familiar ground here, though altered somewhat because the story is set in the 1940s in the post-World War II era and Parker does, for the most part, stay within the conventions of his youthful heroes. However, argument can be made that the Hardy Boys were taking on much more dangerous assignments on a regular basis.
The fact that World War II was only an eyeblink ago in the story’s setting is important. The villains are made more menacing because of that, and they take their roots there. And Parker is given a freer rein to talk about wickedness inherent in the heart of men and the consequences of honor. Strangely enough, some of that wickedness is still in our world.
The writing is as pure and economical as always. There’s an innocence about Bobby that is endearing, but at the same time he comes across as older than his 14 years. Parker weaves his plotlines effortlessly and readers will cruise through this one. More than that, this is a book that adults and young readers can share and both enjoy. I’ve handed off my copy to my 18-year-old, whom I’ve also introduced to Parker’s work, as well as Crais’s and other writers.
I envy the young readers who will find this book. This will be their first Robert B. Parker novel and they’ll find so many more books waiting for them as they grow up. Hopefully Parker will find time in his busy schedule to pen another Bobby Murphy book.