Formulas are funny things. Some stay fresh for decades, while others . . . not so much. Robert B. Parker, who died last year after cranking out something like 50 (mostly) crime novels, was my hands-down favorite crime writer for about four years in the early Eighties, after which I lost all taste for his writing.
In the early Eighties an acquaintance tipped me off to Parker’s Spenser series, after I’d gone into withdrawal from a summer-long John D. MacDonald binge, and I eagerly snapped up the first 10 entries. Great stuff — fast, often very funny, and tough-minded in some surprisingly smart ways. Last week I revisited my three favorites from the series — God Save the Child (1974), Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), and Early Autumn (1980) — and they’re still the place for newbies to start.
The funny thing about the books is that Spenser, a detective, doesn’t really do much detective work. He mostly gets results through muscle, finding somebody skeevy in the Boston underworld and beating him until he talks. On the occasions that method doesn’t work, Spenser calls in Hawk, a towering African-American contract killer who shares Spenser’s taste in quips but is ready to take the violence a few steps further than Spenser tends to go. Early on, this functioned as an interesting thematic touch: Hawk as the kind of stone killer Spenser might have turned into under the right (or wrong) set of circumstances. After too short a time, it became a convenience: if Spenser needed to perform a deed too dirty for his knight errant image, Hawk would be on hand. This, along with the fact that Spenser would never face a credible physical threat, helped drain my interest in the books.
Another interesting quirk of the early novels was the way Spenser’s invincible confidence led him to take a hand in setting people’s lives straight — as straight as he could make them, anyway. The mystery element in Early Autumn is quickly dispatched: the core of the novel is Spenser’s bid to serve as father figure to Paul Giacomin, a formless boy who has spent most of his young life watching television while his divorced parents fight over custody rights.
“Why don’t you just let me alone?”
I sat back down beside him. “Because everybody has left you alone all your life and you are, now, as a result, in a mess. I’m going to get you out of it.”
“I mean you don’t have anything to care about. You don’t have anything to be proud of. You don’t have anything to know. You are almost completely neutral because nobody took the time to teach you or show you and because what you saw of the people who brought you up didn’t offer anything you wanted to copy.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“No, not yet. But if you lay back and let oblivion roll over you, it will be your fault. You’re old enough now to start becoming a person. And you’re old enough now that you’ll have to start taking some kind of responsibility for your life. And I’m going to help you.”
“What’s lifting weights got to do with that stuff?”
“What you’re good at is less important than being good at something. You got nothing. You care about nothing. So I’m going to have you be strong, be in shape, be able to run ten miles, and be able to lift more than you weigh and be able to box. I’m going to have you know how to build and cook and to work hard and to push yourself and control yourself. Maybe we can get to reading and looking at art and listening to something besides situation comedies later on. But right now I’m working on your body because it’s easier to start there.”
“So what,” Paul said. “In a little while I’m going back. What difference does it make?”
I looked at him, white and narrow and cramped, almost birdlike, with his shoulders hunched and his head down. He needed a haircut. He had hangnails. What an unlovely little bastard.
“That’s probably so,” I said. “And that’s why, kid, before you go back, you are going to have to get autonomous.”
“Autonomous. Dependent on yourself. Not influenced unduly by things outside yourself. You’re not old enough. It’s too early to ask a kid like you to be autonomous. But you got no choice. Your parents are no help to you. If anything, they hurt. You can’t depend on them. They got you to where you are. They won’t get better. You have to.”
His shoulders started to shake.
“You have to, kid,” I said.
He was crying.
“We can do that. You can get some pride, some things you like about yourself. I can help you. We can.”
For sheer hardboiled lyricism, that passage ranks among the best scenes in the Spenser can0n. Unfortunately, when Spenser took a similar hand in a young girl’s life in Ceremony, the results were rather less palatable. Faced with a girl who kept falling back into street life and prostitution after numerous rescues, Spenser decided that since hooking was her destiny, she might as well do it in a nice brothel with clean sheets. One might have expected an enlightened roughneck like Spenser to be a little less inclined to abandon a teenager to such a fate.
Parker’s style is Chandler-Lite, and Spenser is Philip Marlowe with the melancholy dialed down and the wisecracks amped up. Later on, the quips exchanged by Spenser and Susan became as rote and tiresome as sitcom writing. But the repartee was still fizzy round about the sixth novel, Looking for Rachel Wallace, in which Spenser is hired as bodyguard to a combative lesbian-feminist writer in the Andrea Dworkin mode. Parker spends the first chapters getting plenty of mileage out of the comedic potential from pitting articulate machismo against a sensibility repelled by all of its manifestations
Rachel said, “Tell me about Spenser. Have you known him long?”
“I met him in 1973,” Susan said, “but I’ve known him forever.”
“It only seems like forever,” I said, “when I’m talking.”
Rachel ignored me. “And what is he like?”
“He’s like he seems,” Susan said. The waitress came and took our cocktail order.
“No, I mean in detail, what is he like? I am perhaps dependent on him to protect my life. I need to know about him.”
“I don’t like to say this in front of him, but for that you could have no one better.”
“Or as good,” I said.
“You’ve got to overcome this compulsion to understate your virtues,” Susan said. “You’re too self-effacing.”
“Can he suspend his distaste for radical feminism long enough to protect me properly?
Susan looked at me and widened her eyes. “Hadn’t you better answer that, snookie?” she said.
“You’re begging the question, I think. We haven’t established my distaste for radical feminism. We haven’t even established that you are in fact a radical feminist.”
“I have learned,” Rachel Wallace said, “to assume a distaste for radical feminism. I rarely err in that.”
“Probably right,” I said.
“He’s quite a pain in the ass, sometimes,” Susan said. “He knows you want him to reassure you and he won’t. But I will. He doesn’t much care about radical feminism one way or the other. But if he says he’ll protect you, he will.”
“I’m not being a pain in the ass,” I said. “Saying I have no distaste for her won’t reassure her. Or it shouldn’t. There’s no way to prove anything to her until something happens. Words don’t do it.”
“Words can,” Susan said. “And tone of voice. You’re just so goddamned autonomous that you won’t explain yourself to anybody.”
The waitress came back with wine for Susan and Beck’s beer for me, and another martini for Rachel Wallace. The five she’d had this afternoon seemed to have had no effect on her.
“Maybe I shouldn’t cart her around everyplace,” I said to Rachel.
“Machismo,” Rachel said. “The machismo code. He’s locked into it, and he can’t explain himself, or apologize, or cry probably, or show emotion.”
“I throw up good, though. And I will in a minute.”
For sheer unpredictability, God Save the Child is not only the best of the series, but one of the best detective novels of the Seventies. Along with the core story — a boy’s disappearance that becomes a kidnapping that becomes extortion that becomes a search for a father figure — the novel shows Spenser meeting and courting Susan Silverman, the love of his life. A lot of the Freudian analysis of the boy’s budding sexual identity has curdled into creepy nonsense — in some ways, Rachel Wallace reads like an apology for the villain, Vic Harroway — but Parker comes through with a superbly written fistfight and a final twist that fills out a nice picture of suburban evil.
As long as Parker stayed within this Boston milieu, the early novels were fine. The first sign of trouble was The Judas Goat, in which Spenser and Hawk took off for London and a round of terrorist-hunting that wouldn’t have passed muster as a James Bond plot. John D. MacDonald committed a similar misstep when he pitted Travis McGee against a terrorist training camp in The Green Ripper, but he learned his lesson and returned McGee to his familiar condo-ized swamp of bikers, hustlers and real-estate hucksters. Parker not only failed to learn the lesson, he doubled down on absurdity with A Catskill Eagle, in which Spenser plays Orpheus to Susan’s Eurydice in a bunker below the Colorado mountains.
Spenser’s subsequent adventures became exercises in by-the-numbers commercial writing, and I lost interest. It didn’t hurt Parker’s career any — I don’t think any of his later novels failed to climb the bestseller lists — but there’s a difference between formula and pablum, and Parker too often came down on the wrong side of the divide.