Spenser is initially called into the case by the police; they need help from an unimpeachably reliable outsider to catch a murderer who claims (via an anonymous note) to be a cop. The official investigation is also hindered by citizens’ groups and administrators whose outrage at what seems to be racially motivated crimes against women is political and self-serving. Spenser is free from such supervision, however, and can count on resources unavailable to the police, especially upon Hawk, streetwise and strong, and Susan, filled with equal parts of psychoanalytical training and feminine intuition.
Much of the story is taken up with details of the pursuit of the murderer, and Parker is at his best when he laconically describes how Spenser cooks, makes love, works out, insults a radio talk-show host and his audience, and beats up a gang of musclemen--all while he is in the process of chasing the psychopath who is terrorizing the city.
Parker’s secondary focus, though, is on the mind of the murderer himself. Many detective novels attempt to analyze the motivation of a criminal, but Parker creates an extraordinarily persuasive inside view of the Red Rose killer by letting him communicate directly through italicized passages spread throughout the book. Like the cross-cutting in the film TAXI DRIVER, which CRIMSON JOY recalls in some ways, this is done primarily to build tension, but it also makes the disturbed murderer a bit more human.
It is one thing to reveal the thoughts of a murderer and make him more fully a character in the novel, and quite another to analyze him successfully. Unfortunately, the book is filled with almost laughably oversimplified psychological analysis, not only in Susan’s interpretive comments as she helps track down the murderer, who may be one of her patients, but also in the contrived episodes which the murderer relates from his own past. Parker’s proposition that not mean streets but mean mamas make murderers would make Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett gag.
Despite its exciting narrative and its droll style--trademarks of Parker--CRIMSON JOY is disturbing as well as entertaining. Parker may not be aware that at least for some modern readers Spenser’s jocular anti-feminism, unembarrassed though somewhat enlightened machismo, and rugged romanticism link him with rather than separate him from the brutal but cavalier murderer who romances women he loves but hates with a gun and a red rose.