Pros: Poignant story of a teenager with little choice but to mature quickly.
Cons: Painful reminder of how Robert B. Parker’s work slipped in his last years.
The Bottom Line: See a confused boy become a young man with direction. Also included: a charismatic P.I., gunplay and fistfights.
I will begin this review with an admission: I am a huge fan of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser character - the Boston-based private detective with a killer left jab and even more potent knowledge of English literature. I own and have read a sizeable chunk of the “Spenser” collection. In recent years, my enthusiasm has died down due to what I feel is the declining quality of the novels. The main character, his supporting cast and the adventures/mysteries themselves are not as compelling as they once were. I attribute this to lack of character development; lack of development leads to characters of limited dimension. It is difficult to care about such characters.
Lack of character development is not a problem that “Early Autumn” has; it is from the early 80’s - prior to Spenser’s commercialization and regression into a rock’em, sock’em tough guy handy with one-liners. The plot of the novel centers around the character growth of a teenager (Paul) who due to the severe apathy of both his parents must quickly mature into a self-sufficient young man. Luckily, Paul has a strong role model to emulate, Spenser. Spenser senses Paul’s need for direction and instructs the boy in what he knows best: physical fitness, self-defense, carpentry and problem solving. The unifying trait of these subjects, the ability to be self-reliant.
Parker does a wonderful job of slowly developing the Spenser/Paul relationship. To say that Paul is a reluctant student at first is an understatement but he gradually warms to the direction. Spenser’s motivations to help Paul grow from pity combined with moral outrage that a boy could reach mid-teens so emotionally neglected to honest paternal affection. At novel’s end, Spenser remains Paul’s mentor and father figure but it is certain that Paul has become a young man prepared with skills to function as a successful adult.
I have re-read this novel several times and have come to the conclusion that it is not so much a detective novel as a story about a teenager’s path to adulthood that utilizes pulp fiction devices for ease of progression. One of these devices Parker uses is what I deem the “faux” plot: woman in distress seeks to protect her son from the father with ties to shady dealings. This is a simple way for Paul and Spenser to be introduced. The “faux” plot allows Parker to interject a bit of standard private detective/hero action and a mini-mystery for Spenser and Paul to pursue. The mini-mystery provides more than one benefit to the young man struggling to find an adult identity - benefits best discovered by cracking open this book.