“The kind of man I am is not a suitable topic, you know. It’s not what one talks about.”
“Because it’s not.”
“The code? A man doesn’t succumb to self-analysis? It’s weak? It’s womanish?”
“It’s pointless. What I am is what I do. Finding the right words for it is no improvement. It isn’t important whether I’m scared or excited. It’s important whether or not I do it.”
I came across Robert B. Parker’s Promised Land in the library the other day and puzzled over it: was it possible I had never read this early volume in the Spenser series? Promised Land, which is the fourth Spenser novel, dates from 1976 and won an Edgar in 1977. But though I have been reading and rereading these books since some time in the 1980s, it didn’t look at all familiar, and now that I’ve read it, I feel pretty certain this was my first time.
The reason I think so is that though Promised Land is not a great Spenser novel — by which I mean, it is not much like the Spenser novels I like best — it does some really important work for the series, particularly in terms of Spenser and Susan’s relationship. It also introduces us to Hawk. So surely if I’d read it before, I would have remembered it! But maybe not.
In any case, I’ve read it (or possibly reread it) now, and though I didn’t really like it that much, I was fascinated by it. One way in which it differs from the later Spensers I am more familiar with is that it is way more wordy. I don’t really mean the exposition, though this too I think gets more spare as Parker’s formula develops. But by the last dozen or so titles, Parker’s characters are so well-defined they barely need to speak to each other in full sentences. Their cryptic utterances sometimes border on self-parody, but at other times there’s a beautiful ease to it: you know these people already, so you know what they mean and what they stand for — even, to some extent, what they will do — without their needing to explain it, to each other or to you. Thus Parker is liberated from the expository burden dialogue in novels sometimes carries and can just serve up the situation and let them volley words back and forth, witty and bracing and in some strange way pure.
It’s an aesthetic effect that, when it works, perfectly suits the kind of man Spenser is: a man whose actions, as he says to Susan in Promised Land, speak for themselves. This doesn’t mean he isn’t introspective or capable of nuanced insight. He’d just rather act on what he discerns than spell it out. It’s primarily Susan who encourages him to articulate his life, which I’ve always thought was her primary role in the series — that and providing psychological and emotional support to people caught up in Spenser’s cases who aren’t well served, or sufficiently served, by his decisive but often unconsoling minimalism.
Even with Susan, though, there’s often not a lot of talking, or at least not that’s reproduced for us, which is why Promised Land is so interesting, because it’s early enough in their relationship that its terms haven’t yet been established. In fact (and this is the main bit I think I’d have remembered, if I’d read it before) in this novel they go through a crisis precipitated by the cliched scenario of her telling him she loves him and him shying away from what he thinks are the implications:
“Are you saying we should get married?”
“At the moment I’m saying I love you and I’m waiting for a response.”
“It’s not that simple, Suze.”
“And I believe I’ve gotten the response.” She got up from the bar and walked out.
If you know Susan and Spenser from the later novels, you’ll know them as one of literature’s most rock-solid couples, thoroughly devoted to each other but also leading lives of scrupulous independence, with their own homes, for example, without marriage, and only eventually with a shared dependent (Pearl the Wonder Dog!). Though I know some people can’t abide Susan, and I admit I sometimes find her too impeccable to bear (especially her oft-remarked habit of eating and drinking only the most microscopic portions at a time), I have always thought their partnership was exemplary for its balance of love and autonomy. They are two people who have somehow, miraculously (unrealistically?) learned simply to accept each other the way they are. Susan in particular has come to terms with the man Spenser is, from his unyielding (if largely unarticulated) code of honor to his capacity for violence. He reciprocates with unstinting admiration and respect for her. Once in a while the unusual form of their commitment is tested, but they always pass the test, in defiance of the literary and social norms it upsets. (It’s worth knowing that Parker and his wife Joan also had a somewhat unconventional union.)
What’s so interesting (well, to me — sorry if this is just so much insider baseball to you non-Spenser-fans out there) is that it turns out to be in Promised Land that Spenser and Susan first hammer out the terms that will define their relationship for the rest of the series. Not completely, but pretty clearly. The context in which they do this is also interesting, because it sheds some light on the way Parker was trying to sort out the ideology of the series, which can probably be summed up — a bit paradoxically — as a highly progressive form of rugged individualism.
The case Spenser is involved with here involves a woman, Pamela Sheppard, who leaves her husband for no stronger reason than general dissatisfaction with her marriage. (There turns out to be more awry with her husband than that he doesn’t really see her for who she is, but that’s where she starts.) She ends up falling in with a group of women keen to start a revolution against the patriarchy, and as a result she ends up an unwilling participant in a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. Spenser is entirely unmoved by her distress:
“You want me to bring you flowers for being a goddamn thief and a murderer? Sweets for the sweet, my love. Hope the old guy didn’t have an old wife who can’t get along without him. Once you all get guns you can liberate her too.”
Susan said, “Spenser,” quite sharply. “She feels bad enough.”
“No she doesn’t,” I said. “She doesn’t feel anywhere near bad enough. Neither do you. You’re so goddamned empathetic you’ve jumped into her frame. ‘And you felt you had to stand by them. Anyone would.’ Balls. Anyone wouldn’t. You wouldn’t.”
I didn’t like Spenser here at all (even though I don’t disagree with him about the poor bank guard). For one thing, he’s not helping — either Pamela personally, or his own work. More generally, he’s unmoved by arguments in the abstract or in principle, including, in this book, feminist arguments. When Pamela suggests he probably believes in “the sanctity of marriage,” he replies “Sanctity of marriage is an abstraction. . . . I don’t deal in those. I deal in what it is fashionable to call people. Bodies. Your basic human being.” He is impatient throughout the book with what today we would call “systemic” analyses, which is not to say he denies that women are positioned differently and often disadvantageously in society, but that he insists on addressing only the particulars he sees right in front of him.
This is what I mean when I say you can tell, if you’ve read the later books, that Promised Land shows the series was still, politically, a work in progress, or perhaps the right way to put it is that Parker himself was still figuring out how to define, or demonstrate, his own feminist politics. Because I would say, based on the other books I’ve read, that the Spenser series is quite emphatically a feminist series, or at least that it becomes so, and that one sign of that is how often Spenser actually talks about systemic problems — about gender and also, not at all incidentally, about race, though that’s not what Promised Land particularly highlights. Still, throughout the books there is always some tension between understanding that there are problems that exceed individual agency, on the one hand, and Spenser’s highly individualistic code of honor and principle, on the other. Maybe it’s a tension that’s inevitable to the form of the hard-boiled detective novel: Spenser is one man committed to doing everything he can for a particular case; it does him no good as a detective or a modernized knight errant to fixate on systemic injustices — the effect might be paralyzing. I think Parker is also just a bit too much in love with some tendencies of the hard-boiled genre (objectifying beautiful women, for instance) to entirely counteract his more deliberate investment in creating women characters who don’t need any rescuing at all, thank you very much.
At any rate, Promised Land made me uneasy in its resistance to feminism in a way that later books don’t. At the same time I appreciated that Parker makes this unease an explicit part of the book. Spenser wants Mrs. Sheppard to go back to her husband and try again, not because he believes in “the sanctity of marriage” as an absolute but because he thinks maybe if they both let go of their defined roles (his as provider and protector, hers as help-meet and accessory) they might be able to redefine their relationship. Spenser’s conversations with Susan about marriage are clearly affected by their dual (but not identical) concerns about how male and female roles are defined and are changing. When he does eventually propose, Susan, in her turn, backs away: now she isn’t sure what they should do, only that “it’s the kind of thing we need to think on.” That, I do like.
Spenser’s emphasis on action over psychology (or even deduction) is why I stopped reading the series after trying two or three. (Susan didn’t help, either.)
I can drift along with the masters of noir like Hammett despite their femme fatales and sexism or with someone like Lawrence Block, but hard-boiled detective fiction is almost universally a miss for me.