It’s Always Sunny

I’ve often wondered what was wrong with Sunny Randall. Having starred in no fewer than six crime novels by the late “dean of American crime fiction” Robert B. Parker, how had Sunny somehow become chopped liver after his sudden death at his writing desk in 2010?

No, not Sonny Randall, the NFL quarterback that some are old enough to remember. Sunny Randall, an ex-Boston cop with self-anointed “daddy issues” – her father was a very good, very honest and now very retired Boston cop – who became a private eye. Her six novels showed her solving cases, with all the usual run-ins with angry criminals and even angrier police bureaucrats, the standard stew of the standard crime fiction that no one understood better than Parker. His Ph.D. dissertation was on the American detective novel. Before he became it.

In the years since the great man’s passing, his signature series about the tough-as-nails but charming-as-sin Boston private eye Spenser (spelled with an s, like the poet, he’d always have to explain) has been brilliantly continued by Ace Atkins. Parker’s series about drink-haunted police chief Jesse Stone has been, if anything, made darker and more absorbing by Reed Farrel Coleman. And even Parker’s Westerns that began with Appaloosa have been kept alive by Robert Knott.

The fact that Parker created all these characters to transfer to movies or television speaks to their ongoing appeal, with Robert Urich starring in Spenser for Hire season after season on television, Tom Selleck making a second career of portraying Jesse Stone in straight-to-TV and straight-to-DVD movies, and Viggo Mortensen starring with Ed Harris in Appaloosa.

Parker’s main regret, he told me when I interviewed him at home in Cambridge only months before his unexpected death, was that he’d never seen Sunny Randall on big screen or small. “I was asked to create her for Helen Hunt – by Helen Hunt,” he said, with his (and Spenser’s) impish grin. As I was leaving that day, having explained to Parker that I hated all Westerns, he asked me to do him just one favor. I turned back to face him in his doorway and he said, “Read my Westerns.” So I have, ever since.

With all this backstory, I was intrigued to pick up the first post-Parker Sunny Randall novel, published like all the rest of his “post books” as Robert B. Parker’s Blood Feud. The fact that the series was being revived by sports columnist Mike Lupica, only recently departed from the New York Daily News, added to my fascination. And it makes Sunny’s continued insistence that, to the horror of everyone she meets around Boston, she cares not a wit about the Celtics, the Bruins, the Patriots or even the incredible Red Sox all the funnier.

It’s an inside joke. Robert B. himself filled his books with inside jokes, letting each of us feel we were sneaking in, by way of his beloved Boston.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that the thing I liked least about the Sunny Randall novels was her ongoing love affair with Jesse Stone. I never thought crossing different series should be legal, which means I could never work at Marvel. But since Stone never could get over his ex-wife and Sunny never could get over her ex-husband, it made for sex almost as weepy as all their endless drinking. And then they’d go out and solve a case, which one of them depending on whose series it was.

In Lupica’s fresh take, Sunny simply and fondly remembers Stone – but she has reunited, to some limited degree, with her ex, Richie. Unfortunately, while he always stayed out of the family business and comes off as a nice-enough guy, the family business in Boston is Irish organized crime. In Blood Feud, Richie’s aging father and his non-Richie kin end up rubbing their Italian counterparts in Providence the wrong way. Lupica gets the old Sunny Randall gang back together, which sometimes means the old Jesse Stone gang and sometimes even the old Spenser gang. Sunny’s regular visits to her therapist, the gorgeously and brilliantly Jewish Susan Silverman, includes references to the unnamed love of Susan’s life. Who is, of course, Spenser.

Let’s cut to the chase: Lupica does a bang-up job with Sunny, Richie, the old mob guys and the young mob guys, the witty Parkeresque dialogue and most bits of scenery between Boston’s Beacon Hill and Providence’s Federal Hill. Sunny Randall has finally returned to the fold, both Parker’s fold and ours. With all due respect to Susan Silverman, Sunny is chopped liver no longer.

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