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AN EXPANDING CAST OF CHARACTERS

With "Family Honor," the versatile Robert B. Parker -- best known for his Spenser private eye series -- proves that he may be foremost among today's writers of American crime fiction.

He does so by extending his reach to create a fascinating new protagonist, Boston female investigator Sunny Randall, and starring her in this memorable narrative.

Sunny's a divorced former cop, in her mid-30s. And the author gives her a fresh supporting cast: ex-hubby Richie, a cop, with whom she's maintained an amicable relationship; Spike, a flamboyant, lethal homosexual; and three of Richie's relatives, all Boston Mafia figures. Richie maintains he's uninvolved with the mob.

"Family Honor" is Parker's most emotional and multilayered book, brimming with uncommon sensitivity, indelibly sharp characters, keen psychological insight and the most penetrating and illuminating dead-on dialogue, a talent for which Parker's been cited in his Spenser series.

Narrated by Sunny Randall, "Family Honor" is a moving, involved, quietly powerful story in which she's hired to find a 15-year-old runaway daughter of wealthy and politically ambitious parents.

Sunny finds the girl, Millicent, working as a prostitute and wrests her -- at gunpoint -- from the control of her dangerous pimp. When Millicent refuses to return to her parents, the P.I., recognizing she's been traumatized by threats at home, agrees to temporarily "adopt" and hide her.

Learning that Millicent's mother has hired an Irish hit man to eliminate her daughter, Sunny -- backed by her former Irish Mafia in-laws -- boldly meets with Albert Antonioni, a Mafia don in Rhode Island and political supporter of Millicent's father.

Not only does Parker stunningly enlarge his versatility and hone his storytelling prowess in the novel, but the results may very well make "Family Honor" (a Book-of-the-Month selection) his finest yet, exceeding his most standout Spenser adventures.
FAMILY HONOR
By Robert B. Parker
Putnam
322 pages, $22.95

More thrills, briefly
The Breaker, by Minette Walters; Putnam, 368 pages, $23.95 -- A brilliant new example of psychological suspense at its best, from award-winning Walters. Each time the cops develop a case against a murder suspect, the evidence shifts, pointing to another. Solution to the killings on Dorset's coast comes down, eventually, to a clever analysis of events and human motivations. This knockout whodunit is possibly on its way to nomination as the best British crime story of the year.