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A national book reviewer, commenting on author Robert B. Parker's novels featuring Boston private eye Spenser, observed: "We are witnessing one of the great series in the history of the American detective story."

That was because Spenser's Beantown creator depicted the gumshoe and his adventures as a blend of the virtuoso storytelling of America's three previous giants of the genre, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

There are, in Parker's Spenser, many of the character traits showcased by those three writers: Hammett's Continental Op, Chandler's Philip Marlowe and Macdonald's Lew Archer.

From the mix of similar themes and characters that gave us the first Golden Age of the American Mystery, Parker has borrowed selectively, and invented carefully, to produce his central character Spenser, a hip, premillenium private investigator whose plot-driven novels are as up to date as today's newspaper front pages.

In "Sudden Mischief," the 25th addition to his sterling series, Parker once again melds the stark realism of Hammett, the quick-witted dialogue of Chandler, the moral and social environment of Macdonald.

Which means that Spenser's latest case is a corker, not as action-packed as some of the series, but a slow, sure effort on his part to decipher a strange class-action suit filed by a handful of starchy, attractive, well-connected Boston women against the ex-husband of Susan Silverman, Spenser's long-time lover.

Before everything's over, peeper Spenser's gotten entangled in a spin-off case involving some of the lady plaintiffs and a plot that includes a fraudulent scheme to skim charitable donations.

The essence of the white-collar involvement in "Sudden Mischief" makes the case more of a cerebral exercise for Spenser, but he still has to call upon Hawk, his giant black sidekick, for backup when his enemies begin using strong-arm tactics.

"Sudden Mischief" may be minor Spenser, but, as his fans know, even minor Spenser is better than most other authors' best. This one's another Book-of-the-Month Club selection for its 64-year-old author who is probably the most decorated winner of whodunit kudos on record.
By Robert B. Parker
288 pages, $22.95

More thrills, briefly

Blues for the Buffalo, by Manuel Ramos; St. Martin's, 215 pages, $21.95 -- Further adventures of bedraggled Denver lawyer Louis Montez as he follows twists and turns of aspiring young writer Rachel Espinoza who disappears after giving Montez her manuscript. Lawyer Montez's route takes us seamlessly along an intriguing path through Chicano myth, history and literature. This one's top-notch.