Robert B. Parker Week

I usually post about a single book I read, why I liked it, why I didn’t. This time, however, I read 3 Spenser novels in rapid succession. They are in order of publishing #s 4, 5, and 6. I could wax on about each, but what I can and want to say about them kind of fit together, so… here it goes.

Looking for Rachel Wallace, and Promised Land are fun stories that give insight into the times- late 70’s Boston- and the characters of the novels. Judas Goat does neither, and almost could have been another series altogether.

The good first. LFRW is all about character. The events in the story are, like many Spenser stories, not huge in scope. Spenser is hired as a bodyguard for a prominant lesbian author. They clash over his excessive manliness, which involve him being physically aggressive, which Rachel Wallace despises (among other more nuanced reasons, I simplify here). He admits his faults, but doesn’t change. In the end they come to an uneasy friendship because his excessive manliness has redeeming qualities, such as deep loyalty.

At one point, Robert B. chose to explain Spenser’s character, rather than show it. He uses the character of Susan (his well known love interest and mirror of Robert B.’s real life wife and muse) to actually say, “he’d like to be Sir Gawain. He was born five hundred years too late.” That part was a little lazy, but I can live with it because it is actually important to the plot (more on that later).

It is also about how Spenser deals with and thinks about feminism, which is very much the zeitgeist of late 70’s America. Spenser might be fiercely male and doesn’t really see the need for the radical part of feminism, but he will defend his lesbian charge because, well, he said he would. He cares about her as a person. And he shows that he’s a real person (Parker doesn’t tell this time) because when he helps/finds/defends Rachel Wallace, he cries with her in her pain. So he’s really a softy, right?

Well, kind of. That’s where Promised Land is a little different. Again, there are radical feminists. This time, however, he kind of goes to extremes to ensure that the extreme militant radical feminists are jailed- which, admittedly, they kind of deserved because they killed an innocent bank guard. One of the main characters of the story was a housewife who was dissatisfied with her role as a wife. He helps her, but kind of pushes her to return to her husband. In the end, without getting into too much detail, he takes down an organized crime leader, who is a weak and dislikable character, saves the girl (middle aged wife actually), and her husband.

So again, he helps people because he said he would. But his ambivalence about women’s lib (if I may be so bold as to use these terms many decades later) is still evident. Or maybe it is Parker’s ambivalence? Hard to say. The point is this, both of the novels revolve around feminism, and Spenser as a very male hero juxtaposed against it. Can you be a Sir Gawain in a world that has moved on? Spenser says, yes.

Then we get to Judas Goat. It might as well have been a different character. Spenser turns into an international bounty hunter, killing half a dozen people he’s never met in the first hundred pages. He seems to have lost the morality of the other two novels.

The only thing that links them is Susan. She’s consistent, but kind of one dimensional. And I guess Hawk is there too, for the first time as sidekick/partner.

I’ve written before that Spenser novels used to be regular features in my home as a kid. Parker was (one of if not) my Dad’s favorite author. I only read one at the time, which I wrote about here. In a discussion with a friend who has read most if not all of them, Spenser goes downhill after A Catskill Eagle, still another half dozen novels later. In it, Spenser becomes more of a spy novel antihero as Susan loses her mind and leaves him.

While I haven’t read A Catskill Eagle  yet, I feel like Judas Goat is foreshadowing that decline. It was interesting and well written, but the characters felt out of place. The morality and chivalry was missing. And that’s what makes a Spenser novel for me.

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3 thoughts on “Robert B. Parker Week

  1. Could he have had a ghost writer? More likely your point about foreshadowing the further decline is accurate. Dennis Lehane’s A Drink Before the War was raw and wonderful. Several books later his characters have morphed as has the author’s life, and they are still good books but something is off. Interesting to see the change in a writer.

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    • I kind of doubt he had a ghost writer. It was not quite the fashion at the time. You see that a lot these days with the likes of James Patterson, who will “co-write” a bunch of novels every year. Parker may have not fully fleshed out the character (it was early in the series) or he may have just wanted to write something different but needed to use his existing franchise. Hard to say

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  2. Pingback: Book Review – The Atrocity Files | B.S. Donovan

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