by Robert B. Parker
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons
336 pages, 1999
Buy it online
Parker Without Apologies
Reviewed by Kevin Smith
Poor Robert B. Parker. If only he'd died in a plane crash. At one time, Parker was regularly discussed in the same hushed, reverential tones usually reserved for the masters of detective fiction. By the early 1980s, in fact, he was being trumpeted as the genre's savior. "[T]he legitimate heir to the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald tradition," critic David Geherin called him in Sons of Sam Spade (1980), making a spirited and convincing argument based on just the first five books in Parker's series about brash Boston private gumshoe Spenser.
And then Parker had to go and spoil it all by doing something stupid like not only refusing to die, but having the audacity to continue writing (over 30 books in print, and counting). He's compounded his crimes by making it all look easy. Infuriatingly easy, as far as some are concerned -- those who imagine Parker cranking out books without breaking a sweat, only to have each new one appear almost instantaneously on bestseller lists. And then there was the successful, if embarrassingly so-so TV series based on his Spenser stories. Not to mention his completion of Raymond Chandler's last novel, Poodle Springs, and his sequel to Chandler's 1939 classic, The Big Sleep. Both of which sold quite well, despite cries of outrage from defenders of the genre's virtue.
How dare he?
So rather than enjoying a comfortable spot in the pantheon beside Dashiell Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, Parker now regularly gets slagged, poked, and prodded at by critics, and even dissed by more than a few of his contemporaries. It's rare these days to hear people who consider themselves fans of the genre actually admit that they like the Spenser series, without first mumbling some sort of vague apology.
Well, here's some news: I like Spenser. And if you actually care about the private-eye novel, maybe you should too. No apologies.
Yes, Spenser, his more-than-able sidekick Hawk, and his long-time girlfriend Susan Silverman sometimes come off as infuriatingly smug cartoons. Yes, some of the Spenser books have been more than a little on the slight side, padded out with double spacing, excessively large type, and an over-abundance of white space, the works seemingly pounded out just to fill an annual slot on bookstore shelves. And yes, a few of those novels have been pretty lame, getting by on style, alone.
But guess what? I like Parker's style. Even the few weak Spenser works contain some damn fine writing. That's the real news, for those who have forgotten: Parker can write. In crisp, tight, snappy prose, heavy on dialogue and tough-guy talk, he sketches out some incredibly swampy tales of the sometimes-murky lines between right and wrong. If the pulps had survived, I have a feeling Parker's name would be prominent on many a cover. Certainly, few of his contemporaries can match the sheer old-time entertainment value and readability of the Spenser series.
And people tend to forget, in these days of the rainbow coalition of private eyes, just how fresh and original Spenser was when he made his debut in The Godwulf Manuscript back in 1973, and how much the genre has changed since then. Long-term significant-others and morally dubious associates are now considered almost clichés. Regionalism rules, with every major city sporting a handful of fictional P.I.s in appropriately trendy colors and flavors. Like it or not, Parker has left a mark, beyond merely greatly expanding the popularity of the private-eye genre. Even now, few writers can deliver the moral and ethical quandaries of our society, and its victims, with such a deft, yet piercing, touch.
Yet, even while he's been expanding the traditions of the genre, and forging new ones, Parker's always been very conscious of its roots. His 1971 doctoral dissertation -- "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Hero, and the Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald" -- clearly draws a line connecting the code of honor followed by James Fenimore Cooper's 18th-century frontiersman Natty "Hawkeye" Bumpo and that of this century's fictional private eyes. It may even suggest what the next century will bring: namely, men of violence and honor, who go down those mean streets Chandler spoke so fondly of, but who "are not themselves mean." Spenser is such a man. In all he does he is honorable, maybe not according to the law or society, but to himself and to his own personal code. He's neither tarnished nor afraid, yet, like Bumpo in The Last of the Mohicans, Spenser would dare to "speak to the truth, consarnin' you or any man that lived."
Hush Money, the 26th installment in the Spenser series, is (surprise, surprise) a pleasure to read, another enjoyable romp, as Parker delivers the goods in the manner in which his fans have become accustomed.
"A mixture of rain and snow is settling into slush on Berkeley Street" as Spenser sits in his office, listening to a spring-training game between his beloved Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays, and anxiously awaiting the start of baseball season. Yet within a handful of pages, dreams of peanuts and Cracker Jacks are banished, as Spenser finds himself working pro bono (an old private-eye tradition) on not one, but two, cases. A girlfriend of Susan's is being stalked, possibly by an ex-husband. Meanwhile, an old friend of Hawk's, Professor Robinson Nevins, is being denied tenure after he's targeted by a rather nasty smear campaign that tries to link the conservative black professor with the recent suicide of a homosexual grad student. (Maybe Spenser feels he owes Hawk and Susan these freebies after putting up with him for 25 books).
The notion of the huge, battle-scarred duo of Spenser and Hawk strolling the hallowed halls of academia, doing their Huck and Jim act, is an enjoyable one, a hard-boiled riff on the Marx Brothers' Horse Feathers. And Susan's friend is yet another of Parker's sympathetic and finely drawn portraits of the emotionally malformed victims of our society. Things keep bopping along, as they're wont to do in Spenser novels, and soon the detective is trying out his clever patter on pompous black radicals, white supremacists, gay militants, an unstable woman, stockbrokers, hired thugs, an assassin or two, and some sniveling academics (those last being easy targets, but ones that Parker -- a former academic himself -- revels in zinging). Also on hand are the usual suspects: gym owner Henry Cimoli, cop Frank Belson, and, yeah, Pearl the Wonder Dog. A suspicious suicide, a possible serial rapist, nasty secrets, blackmail, and, of course, murder also work their way into the plot. And, in a neat little twist, Spenser even ends up with a stalker of his own.
There is much here that's comfortably familiar for the long-time fan: the cooking metaphors and lovingly detailed meal preparations, as Spenser mulls over sticky dilemmas and messy quandaries; his continuing battle to sample every beer on the planet (for those keeping score, knock Sam Adams White Ale, Brooklyn Lager, and New Amsterdam Black and Tan off the list); and the interplay among the familiar characters, which, as always, features some of the snappiest repartee this side of Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles. We even get a little glimpse into Hawk's past, and Susan gets to strut her stuff a bit, as well, in an atypical, but memorable show of impulsiveness.
The book contains a few well-placed digs at political correctness ("Lucky I was a liberated guy and perfectly correct in my sexual attitudes or I might have said something under my breath about women," Spenser thinks at one point). It's always a treat to see Spenser and Hawk struggling to come up with their own unique solutions to the problems at hand. And even while much of this story seems light and breezy, its underlying themes are as serious as ever. Spenser may not have all the answers, but he seems to know all the questions. Confronted with another example of why some people should never become parents, Spenser realizes he's ultimately powerless to affect any lasting change:
I didn't want to scramble his teeth. I wasn't even mad. I was sad. It was all sad. Families breaking up, people dying, mothers grieving.
Maybe that's part of the charm. Parker can be as serious as Macdonald, and as tight and controlled and readable as Hammett. And he seems to have learned well Chandler's advice for keeping things moving: "When in doubt, have a man come in the room with a gun."
For a Spenser book, Hush Money is relatively subdued, less violent and strained than some of Parker's other recent efforts. And this is probably the way it should be. Parker is now pushing 70. Perhaps it's about time he let Spenser settle down a bit, evolve into a calmer, wiser man -- not that I expect he would ever go quietly.
Is Hush Money a classic? Nope. The best Spenser book ever? No, but another good solid entry in the series. Smart? Fun? You bet.
Maybe if Parker had pulled a Buddy Holly at the right moment, his reputation would have been assured. But Parker didn't just conveniently die for the sake of something as ultimately nebulous as literary reputation. Instead, he's survived and continued to write. Parker may draw upon the traditions of the past, but, like his hero, he's always been, and will probably always be, his own man. Parker once wrote, "I'm proud of my writing. I care about each book very much. And I don't care what anyone thinks about it very much beyond that. The work satisfies me, and if it doesn't satisfy me, I am satisfied I can't do any better."
So, even after a quarter-century, Parker and his noble creation, Spenser, continue to entertain, and ask the occasional hard question.
There are worse crimes. | May 1999
KEVIN SMITH is the creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, which is devoted to the appreciation of fictional private eyes -- hard-boiled and otherwise -- in literature, film, television, and other media. His last contribution to January looked at Ross Macdonald's lost-kids theme (see It's Personal).
Read a review of Robert B. Parker's previous Spenser novel, Sudden Mischief