This woman PI is tough as beef jerky

Where keeping it in the family is more than a matter of honor

Family honor by Robert B. Parker Putnam 320 pp., $22.95

Sunny Randall is an ex-cop with an ex-husband and Robert Parker's latest Boston-based PI creation extraordinaire. She stars as Parker's first female protagonist (an author best known for his Spenser mysteries also set in Beantown). As her former husband Richie Burke says, Sunny's one tough cookie.

Forget cookies. Sunny must be beef-jerky tough to deal with the salty bad guys she runs across in this dark and sometimes deviant tale.

A powerful and wealthy couple aiming for the Massachusetts governorship hire Sunny to track down their 15-year-old daughter. It's not the first time Millicent Patton has run away, but what's odd is that her parents wait 10 days before calling on Sunny for help and they admit they've never contacted the police. They'd rather avoid the bad press considering the upcoming bid for office. Sure. Of course. Hiding something, are we?

Naturally, this excuse doesn't sit well with Sunny. The layering of mysteries begins, and Sunny crosses paths with the lowest of the low from a pimp to a crime boss and some hired guns.

As with any Parker mystery, there must be a sidekick. Spike, adept in martial arts, acts as bodyguard. Equally talented in the kitchen, he prepares dishes that read like segments from TV's numerous mouthwatering cooking shows.

And in good Spenser mystery form, there must be a dog. Sunny's miniature bull terrier, Rosie, is about as homely as this breed comes, sometimes mistaken for an opossum. Rosie soaks up many female tears in the course of the story and rather enjoys the job since she loves the taste of salt. As for guard dog duties ... ha, ha, ha, no.

Sunny's ex complicates matters in her life, and this is the best part of the mystery's journey. Sunny comes from a long line of cops, Richie from a line that's long been in the "family" business. They are still in love, but their backgrounds were incompatible. On more than one occasion, though, she finds herself asking Richie if he'll use a little family influence on her behalf. As if love weren't confusing enough.

An easy-going, easy-to-read Parker is just right for a hot summer afternoon when a Dashiell Hammett can seem a dash dense.

*Katherine Dillin is on the Monitor staff.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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