My review title is the epigram which introduces this outstanding novel by Robert Parker and which together with the book jacket illustration summarizes the storyline. However, despite the fact that this thirty-second entry in Robert Parker's Spenser series is as usual told in the first person with Spenser as the narrator, Hawk's and Spenser's usual roles are reversed. In fact, Spenser begins the story with the words "It started without me". With Spenser, we then learn from Hawk, tethered to an IV line and constantly monitored by the staff at the hospital where he is recovering, that he was shot "three times in the back with a big rifle [by a] good shooter [who} grouped all three shots between [the} shoulder blades [but luckily] missed the spine, missed the heart " and thus left Hawk to recover and seek revenge.
Hawk had been hired by a bookie, Luther Gillespie, to protect him after he had been threatened by the Ukranian mob trying to take over his book. Hawk has learned that after he went down they killed Luther, his wife, and two oldest kids, sparing only the youngest son who was in day care and now will be raised by his grandmother. Thus, Hawk knows that after a long and difficult recovery, he will need to not only avenge the attack on him and remove any trace of fear and self doubt which would otherwise remain, but more importantly he can most effectively make whatever amends are possible to Luther for failing to protect his family by somehow insuring the future security of Luther's orphaned young son. As Hawk summarizes the situation to Spenser, "I want to know who they are and where they are. And I want to know they did it. Not think it, know it." To Spenser's admonition that Hawk "won't be ready even if we know who and where", Hawk replies "sooner or later, I'll be ready. And I'll know it when I am." And of course the die is set when Spenser replies simply but meaningfully, "and when you are we'll go." This is the quintessential Spenser-Hawk relationship, where the most important things are often left unsaid.
The bond between Hawk and Spenser is so strong that as information is painstakingly gathered and the outline of a plan of action develops, Spenser realizes that he may eventually have to chose between betraying his own principles to help Hawk or betraying that lifelong bond with Hawk. As events unfold, Spenser and Susan engage in frequent discussions in which she attempts to provide him both support and insight into the situation in which he has been thrust and the code of honor which guides the plan for retaliation which gradually takes shape. As the plans which will almost certainly result in several additional deaths move toward their inevitable climax, Susan eventually summarizes the situation for Spenser by quoting the writer E. M. Forster, "who said that if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he'd have the courage to betray his country". The conversation that follows is the culmination of all the events that have bound Susan and Spenser and Hawk together throughout this marvelous series, and concludes with her helping him understand that his character and his life to date have preordained his decision to "stay with Hawk', and that he is strong enough so that the consequences will eventually pass and he will forgive himself, or as he summarizes the situation "the truth will set you free". But she does then burden him with the knowledge that he is of course not only risking his life but hers as well, since if he gets killed she "will want to die, too". Pretty heady stuff for a story seemingly about the criminal elements that inhabit the darker side of Boston and human nature.
The most intriguing aspect of this story for Spenser devotees is the fact that it reprises the wonderful SMALL VICES, published seven years ago and subsequently made into a television movie starring Joe Montegna which undoubtedly introduced many viewers to the Spenser magic. Just as that episode inevitably and permanently altered Spenser's life and relationship with Susan, this episode brings new understanding to Hawk about both the power and frailty of human relationships, not only his bond with Spenser and Susan but also through the stress that his girlfiend Cecile endures and his sense of responsibilty for Luther's son. Many of the series' characters familiar to Parker's readers form part of the uneasy alliance necessary for Hawk to exact his revenge. These include brief appearances by Quirk, Healy, Henry Cimoli and Rita Fiore and the essential involvement of Tony Marcus and his lieutenant Leonard, Vinnie (the shooter), and the shadowy government operative known as Ives. However, the most intriguing symmetry by far is the crucial role played by The Gray Man, the individual known as Rugar in SMALL VICES but a man of many names, the consummate professional who had almost killed Spenser. Rugar's knowledge of Ukranian and his survival skills (combined with the fact that their objectives are aligned given the assignment that Rugar has undertaken for Ives) causes Hawk and Spenser to enter into an uneasy but extremely necessary alliance of convenience with him as the best means of succesfully implementing the plan which they have evolved As Spenser had parted with Rugar following the conviction of the murderer of Melissa Henderson as the final consequence of the chain of events which had then resulted in the payment of their debts to each, he was left to wonder if "not killing [Rugar] may have been an error". The lack of closure in that novel clearly appeared ominous for Spenser and undoubtedly had left many readers wondering with Spenser if he would indeed be fortunate enough to escape death again when and if they met in the future. Now, in a story that involves Spenser again defining who he is and realizing the costs of that self discovery, the reader gets to accompany Spenser not only on the journey in search of his honor and perhaps his soul itself, but also once again has to be concerned about the role of The Gray Man, who is the undoubtedly most dangerous opponent that Spenser has ever faced because he is as consummate a professional as Spenser but without any apparent morality except for his loyalty to whomever his current employer might be.
This novel is Spenser at his best even while in a subsidiary role to Hawk - spare dialog, adherence to honor, deep love for Susan, and still devoted to a code of honor even when that may be difficult to define. Furthermore in an interesting twist, while Spenser plays a subordinate role to Hawk in this story, the fact that so much of the violence which occurs is psychological means that Susan plays a much more central role than usual. This novel is highly recommended, and while it is perfectly adequate as a standalone work, its enjoyment will clearly be heightened for those long time Spenser fans steeped in his lore and who have read and fondly remember SMALL VICES.