Picks and Pans Review: Stardust

updated 08/06/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/06/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Robert B. Parker

Even the best hitters slump. Wade Boggs has struggled this season; so has Don Mat-tingly. Why should writers be any different?

Parker introduced Spenser, his wisecracking Boston gumshoe, in 1974, and in the mid-'70s Parker produced one solid hit after another, with an occasional home run. But Spenser went into a funk in the mid-'80s, and the series veered dangerously off-track. Last year's Playmates showed Parker regaining his form, and he almost seemed like his old self last fall, when he published his splendid "collaboration" with Raymond Chandler. Poodle Springs. Now comes Stardust. While not quite a four-bagger, it at least qualifies as a stand-up triple.

Spenser's latest job is guarding Jill Joyce, nee Jillian Zabriskie, star of Fifty Minutes, a TV show about a psychotherapist. Joyce is being subjected to an anonymous harassment campaign, which ends in the murder of the actor's stunt double.

A San Andreas Fault of split personalities, Jill is one of Parker's most vivid creations. On the small screen, she is "America's honeybun.... She looked like orange juice and fresh laundry, the perfect date for the Williams-Amherst game, in a plaid skirt, picnicking beforehand on a blanket." In reality, Jill is nothing but troubleā€”a spoiled, egocentric, alcoholic nymphomaniac. Of course, she is more than just an assignment for Spenser; she is a reclamation project. With the aid of his lady love, Susan Silverman, and the ever-so-suave Hawk, Spenser sets out to solve the mystery and save a troubled soul while he's at it.

Parker's subject matter gives him a chance to take a few jabs at the world of television, which he entered as consultant-writer on the 1985-88 ABC series starring Robert Urich. Spenser: For Hire. Seeing a TV show being filmed, says Spenser, is "like watching ice melt"; in case we missed the point, we are told 10 pages later that the experience is "like watching dandruff form."

Even though Stardust is the best Spenser novel in years, it has its faults. With 16 Spensers behind him, Parker has to be careful not to repeat himself. When Spenser was described as "dressed to the nines and armed to the teeth" in his last adventure, it was funny; when the exact same description appears in Stardust, it is redundant. A further irritation is a denouement in which a key aspect of the plot is left unexplained.

Quibbles aside, Parker is clearly having fun again. He even laughs at himself: "I felt like I was trapped in a Hemingway short story," says Spenser. "If I got any more cryptic, I wouldn't be able to talk at all." Welcome back, slugger. (Putnam, $18.95)

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