Spenser is initially hired to investigate the murder of Eric Valdez, a reporter looking into a cocaine empire centered in Wheaton, a nondescript (and fictional) small town in Massachusetts. He gets no help from the local police, who are obviously both stupid and corrupt, and no one at all seems willing to talk about Felipe Esteva, the suspected drug dealer. Spenser’s method of investigation is curious: He pokes around, makes his presence known, and then sits back to let things happen.
This method has two consequences. Things do begin to happen, often dramatically; Spenser is attacked, for example, by a brutal but remarkably inept group of thugs whom he easily repulses. The accelerating action, though, is not always so easily within his control, and he realizes that his poking around not only brings him closer and closer to the truth but also precipitates two more murders.
The central characters in the investigation prove to be three women whose lives overlap in a web of passion and jealousy. Juanita Olmos, a young social worker, offers Spenser damning information about Bailey Rogers, the corrupt police chief, but is almost hysterically sensitive to questions about her own relationship to Valdez; Caroline Rogers, the chief’s wife, had confessed secrets to Juanita that did not remain secret for long, with devastating consequences; and Esmeralda Esteva’s love life is, as it were, the heart of darkness in the story.
It should be no surprise to find that at bottom the novel is a sorrowful romance: Parker’s title alludes to John Keats’s poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” dramatizing the wasting effects of love. Spenser inhabits a world of pale kings and princes and demon lovers. He contemplates but escapes their sad fate: because of his intelligence, sensitivity, and physical strength and also because of his trusted friends, Hawk (no pale king) and Susan Silverman, no demon but a lover and therapist extraordinaire.