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Parker's major theme is, as always, Spenser's desire to learn the truth about a murder and to see some kind of justice done. Spenser's investigation of the Melissa Henderson murder at Pemberton leads him into an upper class world where crime may be swept under the carpet and a poor criminal from the inner city can be framed for a rich college boy's crime.

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Spenser's investigation also leads him into the secondary problem of what parents may do when they adopt children. The Stapletons appear to have tried to turn the black child Clint into a replica of themselves, thereby denying him an identity as a black man in a particular culture. Similarly, Susan's friend, by applying politically fashionable theories of child care, is shown to be raising a girl who will be horribly antisocial if she is not punished. Spenser himself fears conflicts with Susan over rearing the child that Susan contemplates adopting.

Finally, Small Vices employs the death and rebirth of the hero theme, represented in Spenser's nearly fatal wound from the gun of the hired assassin, Rugar, and Spenser's return from limbo after a period of convalescence in Santa Barbara, California. This event reminds Spenser of his mortality, although it strengthens the bond between Spenser and Susan, and dissuades Susan from pushing on with her adoption idea. Spenser's return to the East is a triumphant one, since he is able to capture Rugar and negotiate with the former Israeli assassin to get a deposition which will implicate Don Stapleton in his attempted murder.

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