Created by Robert B. Parker
“Being a detective is mostly about not knowing, and asking and looking until you do know, at least something.”
— Sunny explains her M.O. in Melancholy Baby
In the fall of 1999 Spenser creator Robert B. Parker‘s unleashed a new South Boston private eye upon the world: SONYA JOAN “SUNNY” RANDALL. At the time, I remember thinking “This could be a good one–Parker has always shown a talented hand when it comes to female characters. Even Susan Silverman–she may be annoying as hell at times, but she also seems real.”
It turned out that that first book, Family Honor (1999), while a little uneven, was indeed a promising start and the series has since developed nicely, thankyouverymuch, although it did get lost in the late-career burst of creativity which also saw the creation of Jesse Stone and the Hitch and Cole series.
In true Parker fashion, ex-cop Sunny’s got issues with authority, as well as a complicated love life.
In Sunny’s case, it’s the torch she still carries for her ex, Richie Burke. It’s a bit of a Romeo and Juliet thing going on, in fact. Sunny’s family has been in law enforcement forever, and Richie’s family is mobbed up. Her dad, a former cop, spent years trying to put her former father-in-law in the clink. It’s part of the reason Sunny quit the force. So now she works as a P.I. and dabbles at being an artist, even taking an occasional art course or two. Her best friend is restauranteur Spike, the “world’s toughest queer,” a rather formidable and flamboyant guy who’s “gayer than three hummingbirds.”
And like Spenser, Sunny has gone to the dogs. She owns a miniature English bull terrier called Rosie that Sunny denies looks like a possum. Those who aren’t exactly enamoured of Pearl the Wonder Dog in the Spenser series should be warned that Parker himself considers Rosie “a prominent character in the book.”
A movie deal with Helen Hunt, for whom the first book was specifically written and Columbia Pictures apparently fell through. Too bad — the actress intended to turn the character into a franchise. Parker’s had better luck with Sunny than Hunt — Sunny appeared in five subsequent novels.
And as I said the series has steadily improved, moving far away from what initial critics had dismissed as simply Spenser in heels–in truth, at times she’s more like a female version of Jesse Stone. Sure, Sunny cracks wise and has that tangled and convoluted love thang going with Richie, but she’s also far from the self-assured (and much more experienced) Spenser, and that’s where the fun comes in.
Spenser is fully formed, bold and assertive, a freak about self-sufficiency, confident to the point of smugness at times, whereas Sunny, in her early thirties, is still learning, still struggling to come to terms with who she is. She’s also not above asking for help, professional or otherwise, seeking out assistance and advice from myriad sources including Spike; her father and Richie’s Uncle Felix, a particularly nasty specimen, a stone cold killer for Boston’s Irish mob who nonetheless has strong affection for his nephew’s ex-wife. Sunny also routinely crosses paths with regulars and supporting characters from Parker’s other series. In Melancholy Baby (2004), she goes to a Cambridge therapist to try to make sense of her mixed-up love life. The therapist, of course, turns out to be Spenser’s significant other, Susan Silverman, and in Blue Screen (2006), she swaps doughnuts (and later, assorted bodily fluids) with Paradise police chief Jesse Stone.
The crossover gimmick definitely bordered on too cute at times, particularly with the Jesse Stone affair, but that very playfulness also helps to distinguish the Sunny books them from the often far more sombre Spenser and Jesse Stone series. And it’s a hoot to see characters long-established in other series through Sunny’s eyes.
It’s just too bad Parker lost interest in Sunny, focussing instead on his other series in the last few years. Even after his death, it didn’t take long (less than a year!) for other writers to take over Spenser series. Poor Sunny had to wait eight years for sports writer (and Edgar-nominated mystery novelist) Mike Lupica to give us another Sunny book, 2018’s Blood Feud. He did four books, and then handed the wheel to Alison Gaylin, which seems like a good idea. She’s the creator of a well-received (ie: I liked it) series featuring Brenna Spector, a P.I. blessed with a memory you couldn’t kill with a stick.
- “Family Honor is admittedly a remake of Early Autumn. Parker’s trademarks are in place: a witty P.I., a deadly sidekick (in the form of Spike, a gay waiter/karate blackbelt), psychological angles (brought forth by Sunny’s social worker friend, Julie)–along with the usual snappy dialogue and crisp action. So, while it may be a treat for Parker fans, it isn’t much of a surprise. I mainly wanted to see whether Parker could write a convincing female lead and, having read the book, I’m still undecided. By the way, at one point, Parker actually tips the fedora to himself: Sunny muses at one point that: “It would be nice if I weighed two hundred pounds and used to be a boxer. But I’m not, so we find other ways.”
— Gerald So
- Family Honor (1999) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Perish Twice (2000) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Shrink Rap (2002) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Melancholy Baby (2004) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Blue Screen (2006) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- Spare Change (2007) | Buy this book | Kindle it!
- By Mike Lupica
- Blood Feud (2018) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Grudge Match (2020) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Payback (2021) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- Revenge Tour (2022) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
- By Alison Gaylin
- Bad Influence (2023) | Buy this book | Buy the audio | Kindle it!
ALSO OF INTEREST
- The Robert B. Parker Companion (2005) | Buy this book
Edited by Dean James and Elizabeth Foxwell
Everything you always wanted to know about Robert B. Parker’s novels — from Spenser to Jesse Stone to Sunny Randall — but were afraid to ask. Includes plot summaries, cast of characters, Boston locations, a omprehensive biography of Parker, his stand-alone fiction, memorable quotes, an inclusive bibliographyand a new interview with Parker himself.
- Robert B. Parker
Parker’s official web site.
- Looking for Robert B. Parker
The Rap Sheet’s “Fond Farewell to the Man Who Saved P.I. Fiction.”
- Looking for Robert B. Parker: A Fond Farewell to the Man Who Saved P.I. Fiction.
Cameron Hughes‘ must-read intorduction to The Rap Sheet tribute. Reprinted, with permission.
- His Spenser Novels Saved Detective Fiction
Tom Nolan‘s tribute from The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2010.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.