“What I Am Is What I Do”: Robert B. Parker, Promised Land


“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.

promisedland1It’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.

promisedland3The 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 and Susan and Not Minding

fortunesmilesIt has continued to be a busy and fairly miscellaneous period at work — meaning both at my “day job” (since when was being a teacher of any kind ever a job that got done during the day?) and at Open Letters. After a particularly good couple of days, though, I’m feeling on top of things. Not 100% “caught up” (since when was either teaching or writing a job at which you could ever be completely caught up?), but as if the welter of tasks is under control. Probably my biggest single recent accomplishment is that I finally got the draft of my Fortune Smiles review off to my co-editors for their input: I actually started reading and thinking about the book before I even considered writing up Big Magic, so it was starting to feel burdensome not having gotten the project done. The book is superb (it just won the National Book Award, so clearly my admiration is widely shared); it’s also creepy and sad and, sometimes, uncomfortably funny. I read a lot more long than short fiction, so I’m used to working on a review that’s unified by the entirety of the book: figuring out how to manage the material in Fortune Smiles, as well as how to frame it so the review itself cohered, was an interesting new challenge. In less than a week, you’ll see how it turned out!

But this post is actually about the reading I’ve been doing in between all the real work and required reading: a rash of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. I’ve said more than once that someday I’d like to write a piece on the whole series along the lines of what I did with Dick Francis — not that it would lead me to anything like the same conclusions, but that these books too, considered as a totality, offer patterns worth thinking about. I know that Parker has already attracted more critical attention than Francis: that in itself is thought-provoking. I expect it’s because Parker so deliberately positions himself in the hard-boiled tradition of Hammett and Chandler, and because his novels are so conspicuously clever, even cheeky, about both gender and racial politics. Practically every conversation between Spenser and Hawk is as much about being black and being white in America as it is about whatever their ostensible topic is — though what precisely Parker is saying to us, through them, about race is something I wouldn’t want to pronounce on (yet, anyway), maybe because I’m afraid that if I think hard and carefully about it, I’ll discover that there are good reasons their banter shouldn’t delight me as much as it does. I’m sure that when I go looking, I will find that this is one aspect of the series that critics have already examined in some detail.

valedictionThe books are particularly interested in a chivalric version of masculinity which is at once idealized and warned against. One of the things Susan Silverman notes most often about Spenser is that he has found a vocation that allows him to use his moral absolutism and propensity for violence in the service of good; one of the things Spenser broods about, when a pause in the action allows, is whether he is drawing the right lines between what he can and can’t (or, should and shouldn’t) do with his strength. The few times he gets it wrong are among the most interesting for the development of his character: I just reread Valediction (#11), for instance, in which he is led astray and nearly killed by a young woman who takes advantage of his do-gooder instincts — a familiar enough hard-boiled trope, but one that feels more surprising in Parker’s world than in Chandler’s because Parker’s women characters do not typically fit into the angel / femme fatale dichotomy, and many of them are as strong in their own ways as the League of Spenser’s Super Friends are in their excessively manly ones. Parker’s heroic males are actually more limited as character types: to a man, they are tough, uncommunicative, resolute, and (of course) 100% devoted to Susan. (I also just reread A Catskill Eagle, in which they all band together to get her out of trouble.)

The other thing Parker’s manly men all are, though, is voyeuristic, sometimes offensively so, and I’ve been wondering why that hardly bothers me at all. It’s not that I have no misgivings about their whole manly-man thing in a more general way, but overall I enjoy the artifice and the self-consciousness of it: they enact a fantasy, in every novel, in which good triumphs over evil, and given how hard it is sometimes to believe in that possibility, I quite like living vicariously in a world in which it’s a sure thing. I like it so much, in fact, that I basically give them a pass for all their ogling. (It never crosses over into catcalling or any more active interference, or I would be far less sanguine about it.) If I think about this aspect of the novels harder and more carefully, will I discover layers of irony that excuse both their behavior and my indulgence of it, or will I conclude that I’ve let myself down as a feminist by not letting it undermine my admiration of their moral clarity and firmness of purpose? There’s a third option, of course, in which I just don’t take the novels that seriously and so what does it matter, anyway, if the heroes are also, intermittently, sexist pigs? I think we all know in our hearts that this is a bit of a cop-out. But if novels had to pass a Purity of Principle test to be beloved, I’d have to give up a lot of my own favorites — so if there’s no way out for Spenser and his buddies, that doesn’t mean I’ll toss my copies of the books. This flaw in Parker’s worldview would just become one more thing I know about the series.

catskillThe other thing I don’t mind but suspect maybe I should is Susan herself. There’s a lot I like about her as a character, including the way Parker uses her strengths, especially of psychological insight, to complement Spenser’s much less articulate moral instincts. She isn’t quite the brain to his brawn, but there’s a bit of that: at her best, she helps him resolve cases by the way she thinks about them and helps him understand them. But why must she eat and drink so very little, so very slowly? To Spenser, her quirks (she can’t cook! she scatters her clothes around!) are part of her perfection, but sometimes I worry that they trivialize her. What is it about her that inspires such absolute loyalty among all these manly men, too? We’re told incessantly how beautiful she is, in Spenser’s eyes anyway, but she never actually does anything that seems worthy of all the devotion. OK, it turns out there are quite a few things about her that I do mind — maybe because in A Catskill Eagle she is pretty much a drip from start to finish — but overall, I accept her as part of the Parker universe, even as its lodestar.

I asked once before whether I was making excuses for Gaudy Night — sidelining its faults (ideological and otherwise) because I love it so. In that case, I had a lot of answers ready to explain why my reading of the novel is, if not definitive, at least defensible. In this case I don’t even have excuses, or alternative interpretations, to settle my own reservations. I’m almost certainly going to keep on enjoying the Spenser novels, but I wonder how much of my tolerance is just loyalty, or familiarity: I’ve been reading them for decades, after all.

Are there books you can tell have problems, of this kind or some other, but for whatever reason, you don’t really mind? What makes the difference for you between books you can and books you can’t let off the hook?

End of Term Decompression

I wrapped up my winter term courses last week. It’s always a bit discombobulating after the final grades are submitted and I look around and realize the pressure is off. It hasn’t been my busiest term ever–fall was much busier, for instance–but even so there’s that constant awareness of something to get done, those weekends with Monday’s 9:30 class looming over the horizon, the steady of hum of guilt in the background when reading ‘for fun’–and all those odds and ends of bureaucratic business: things to post to Blackboard, doctor’s notes to collate with attendance records, reading responses to alphabetize, record, and return… And then there’s not! Hooray! And, now what?

Well, for starters, I usually treat myself to two things at the end of term: some housecleaning in my office, and some guilt-free down time. This time, that included breezing through some books by long-time favorites Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker. My public library has got quite a good selection of both authors now in their e-books, so all I have to do is point and click and I can load them up on my Sony Reader. I finally got God Save the Child, which I haven’t reread in ages–it’s the second one, right after The Godwulf Manuscript. Just one book later, it’s already more like the Spenser series I came to know and love, but most important, it’s where we first meet Susan Silverman. Spenser does a lot of cooking, and everyone wears fab seventies clothes described in tedious and inexplicable detail. I’m glad Parker started paring things down. Now I’m reading Sixkill, the last Spenser novel Parker finished before he died. The Dick Francis novels I read through were Reflex, Banker, and Decider–all good ones, but of these I think I liked Decider the best. Like Parker, Francis has a formula, but another way to think of a formula is as a recipe: if it works, why not make it again? I like the later Dick Francis books better than the earlier ones that were more closely focused on racing. Though horses are still always involved somehow, the protagonist usually has some interesting job that we get to learn all about: he may be a chef (Dead Heat) or a painter (To the Hilt, one of my favorites) or a glass blower (Shattered, another favorite). As a character, he’s pretty much the same every time: an everyday guy of relentless integrity who rises to the occasion and proves himself, not exactly a hero, but certainly heroic. Best of all, he always admires and usually falls in love with strong, intelligent, independent women. It’s true that, as in the Spenser books, it’s a man’s game overall, but that’s OK because if I get tired of looking at the world from that direction I can always skip over to my collection of Sara Paretsky or Sue Grafton mysteries!

I mentioned on Twitter that I enjoyed Francis’s incorporation of various exotic (to me) professions and my Romance-Land buddies suggested I might find something similar in some of Nora Roberts’s novels. So another book I downloaded was Vision in White, featuring a leading lady who’s a wedding photographer (side note: Nora Roberts is sure popular! pretty much all of her many, many books are checked out from the library’s e-book collection, most with multiple holds on them! I had to wait a few days for Vision in White too). I did enjoy the technical stuff, and I confess that though I’ve never been much of a wedding junkie, the wedding planner business was also entertainingly presented, though I don’t think I could stay interested in it for a whole series. My favorite part of Vision in White was definitely the cute English teacher, though as usual when anyone or anything remotely academic is presented I find it equal parts funny and annoying that the details are usually so inaccurate (not only does this guy enjoy marking student papers, but no distinction is drawn between being a literary scholar and being a creative writer–he has a Ph.D. but “of course” has a short story on the go, just for instance). Hmmm. Maybe all the glass blowing and haute cuisine and banking and architecture stuff in Dick Francis looks just as lame to professionals in those fields! No. Impossible–heresy!

I have been doing some work, including working through some of a revised thesis chapter on which I owe comments and also warming up (but definitely not warming up to) our latest installation of Blackboard. And I’ve had several hours of meetings, including a three-hour appeal hearing this morning, and I’ve had some reference letters to do, all for students I think very highly of and all for the same position–that’s a rhetorically tricky situation, I must say. Now it’s time to adjust to the new reality and start making up to-do lists and setting goals for the time between now and when classes start again. I’m not very good at summers, so I’m going to try and set up some structure for myself…starting tomorrow!

Summer Reading Update: Some Hits, More Misses

I’m up to six books in my quest to reach thirty this summer. I can’t say I’m off to a very good start. Of these, two were awful, two mediocre, and two were very good. I’ll quickly survey them all here, but I plan to give the best two their own proper posts.

The two awful ones were Robert B. Parker’s The Judas Goat and Anne Easter Smith’s A Rose for the Crown. The Parker was a real and unpleasant surprise. I wrote recently about my long-standing fondness for this series and mentioned my interest in rereading some of the earlier ones. I don’t think I had ever read The Judas Goat before. If it had been the first time I ever met Spenser, our beautiful friendship would never have developed: I’m morally certain I would not have read another one in the series. I didn’t like the writing style, which seemed arch and insincere; I didn’t like Spenser, who seemed similarly arch and insincere, gratuitously violent, and also (to my surprise) sexist. To be sure, there are shades of the moral scrupulosity that I associate with him, but not enough. Most of all, I didn’t like Hawk–or, more accurately, I didn’t like the way Hawk is characterized here or the way he and Spenser interact. You can see a glimmer of the wry astute humor that infuses their zippy repartee in the later books, but I had the feeling that Parker hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Plus Hawk kept on calling Spenser “babe,” which I found affected and annoying. The plot was not bad, and it is rare and therefore interesting to have Spenser abroad, but it was only loyalty that kept me reading to the end.

A Rose for the Crown was awful in different ways: it’s historical fiction of the thinnest variety, with tedious faux-antique dialogue, laborious exposition, and lots of forced emotion. I turned every page but by about half-way through I was skimming because I couldn’t bear to put in the effort to read every word. I figure I can count it as “read” for my summer tally because I also skimmed Reay Tannahill’s The Seventh Son, which was equally dreadful. Between them, calculating generously, you have something approximating the substance of a whole book. Honestly, I try to be open-minded in my reading, but I can’t understand the popularity of books of this type: who could not find the transparency of their efforts to be dramatic and affecting, not to mention the alternation between ploddingly pedestrian prose and a kind of loosely imagined old-fashioned idiom kind of insulting after a while? Compare something like The Children’s Book or Wolf Hall–or Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian or Romola: historical fiction can be so much more, and need not neglect originality of style or thought in order to tell a compelling story and animate our imaginings of the past. But I suppose they are no different from other fiction that has no aspiration to ideas, much less to art.

Maisie Dobbs is in the “mediocre” category. Perhaps it was a mistake to read it at a time when I have been reading a lot of much better writing about Britain during the wars. I would call it “Vera Brittain Lite, with a smattering of Dorothy Sayers (but absent her intellectual range).” How’s that for a cumbersome tag line? There’s nothing wrong with Winspear’s careful evocation of either WWI or its social and psychological after-effects, except that she is not a particularly good stylist (a lot of the novel seemed to be, again, striving after effects, rather than earning them) and so many of the notes she plays are so obvious if you already know anything about the context. Maisie is a reasonably interesting character, and reasonably well-drawn: one structural aspect of the book that surprised me was the amount of time spent going back over Maisie’s childhood and development. I wondered, in fact, if Winspear really wanted to write a “real” novel about someone growing up with these kinds of “Upstairs-Downstairs” issues, but thought it would be easier, either to write or to market, if this story were packaged as part of a detective novel. The detective plot is almost peripheral, and as the specific problem under investigation comes into focus, we are left sort of outside it, not knowing the steps Maisie has taken, for instance, to uncover it. I thought it was interesting that the case did connect the ostensible crime to the more complicated question of war and the damage it does–but there are far more original and compelling literary explorations of this (Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, for instance). Maisie’s intense relationship with Maurice was not made compelling to me; it felt formulaic, perhaps because it reminded me too much of Cordelia’s relationship with Bernie in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (which is a much better, more surprising, more literary mystery). So for me the book was just OK, but it had enough interesting aspects that I’m willing to read at least one more in the series, to see if they get better. I just hope Winspear got better editing later on. The book opens with a dangling modifier, for crying out loud (how does an editor at a major publishing house not flag and fix this?),  it is full of clichés (“Maisie felt a strong stab of emotion”), and it seems overwritten, as if the author doesn’t think we’ll get it, or if we do, that we won’t feel what she is anxious for us to feel (“a threat to the family of the woman she held most dear, the woman who had helped her achieve accomplishments that might otherwise have remained an unrealized dream”; “a feeling of anticipation and joy welled up inside her as she realized how very lonely it had been working without Maurice”; etc.).

Finally, also mediocre was Marjorie Harris’s Thrifty: Living the Frugal Life with Style. I picked this up from the library because a friend recommended it to me enthusiastically, and I can see why she enjoyed the chatty style and the lifestyle advice, which is sensible and pleasantly concerned to differentiate “frugal” from “cheap.” Being thrifty, Harris argues, is about deciding what you really need, as opposed to what you merely want, and then focusing your efforts and controlling your finances so that these are the things you have. When I tell you that her list of “must-haves” is “delicious organic food, decent wine and candles,” you’ll understand that this is not in fact a book about things you really need in that you could not physically survive without them. That’s fine: we all understand that the real necessities include a roof over our heads, food on the table (organic or not), and so forth. Although there is some discussion in this book about how to understand and stretch your resources to make sure you can have these basics, it’s really more of an argument against foolish consumerism among those who have enough wealth to spend foolishly but might repent–by squandering it and ending up in debt, for instance. I like the idea of identifying priorities and being wary of the immediate but impermanent gratification of purchases that have no lasting value (not economic, again, as this is not really her focus, but value as in making your life better in the ways you really want it to be good). My own list would not include candles, but books, certainly, and music. So her advice for the “frugal fashionista” or the “frugal foodie” was not of much interest, but the general discussion of thrift was, as well as the repeated emphasis on putting your time and money where your heart is–including room for things you love and cherish for their beauty or other special qualities, for example, provided you do not do so at the expense of actual necessities. So far, fine, but the book is not really very well written (“she immediately turned [the fabric] into a suit for my brother and dresses for my baby sister and I” [emphasis ADDED]????–again, how is it that an editor did not flag and fix this?–and there’s trouble with modifiers again, here, too), it gets pretty repetitive, and some of the examples of “thrift” go a little too far towards justified self-indulgence. Great retro cover, though.

What a relief it was to turn to Testament of a Generation: The Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, and to discover the gently painful delights of Jane Gardam’s Old Filth–about both of which, more later.

Robert B. Parker, The Godwulf Manuscript

It seemed appropriate to come back from Boston with a copy of Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser mystery, The Godwulf Manuscript. Though I’m sure I’ve read it before, it wasn’t in my own Spenser collection–which is actually pretty small, since I originally read them from my family’s copies back in Vancouver. The ones I own myself (and thus reread often) are all quite recent.

It was very interesting, therefore, to go right back to the beginning of the series. Right away, I was conscious of differences, particularly in the writing style. Over time Parker’s prose got more and more spare, especially his dialogue (I have joked that he seemed to be aiming for a book in which nobody actually has to talk at all, as they understand each other so well). The Godwulf Manuscript is downright verbose by comparison. There’s a lot more description of the setting and characters, with particular attention to what people are wearing:

Under one of the saplings a boy and girl sat close together. He was wearing black sneakers and brown socks, flared dungarees, a blue denim shirt and a fatigue jacket with staff sergeant’s stripes, a Seventh Division patch, and the name tag Gagliano. . . . The girl had on bib overalls and a quilted ski parka. On her feet were blue suede hiking boots with thick corrugated soles and silver lacing studs. . . .

A black kid in a Borsalino hat came out of the library across the quadrangle. He had on a red sleeveless jumpsuit, black shirt with bell sleeves, high-heeled black patent leather boots with black laces. A full-length black leather trench coat hung open.

There’s really no need for us to know any of this, unless it’s to establish how observant Spenser is. (Of course, for some of us, there’s a little nostalgic potential in this evocation of a college campus in the early 1970s–if it’s possible to feel nostalgic for flared jeans.) Spenser also talks to (and about) himself more, and he doesn’t act quite like the Spenser we know later on. He’s already a smartass and a good cook, but he’s more conventionally hard-boiled: a loner, a heavy drinker, and not too principled to sleep not only with the young student he’s supposed to be protecting but with her mother as well (to be fair, the mother comes on to him pretty aggressively, but the later Spenser would, I think, have resisted, and not just because of Susan). This is a bleaker Spenser, too, and now I’m curious about whether there’s any overt connection made between the ways he develops and his relationship with Susan–whom he meets in the second book, God Save the Child (which I now must find and reread as well).

Speaking of Susan, it was also interesting to note which of Spenser’s people are here right at the beginning: we meet Quirk and Belson right away, which I hadn’t remembered, but there’s no Hawk, for instance–is their meeting part of the plot of one of the early books, does anyone know, or is Hawk just there at some point? There’s no Rita Fiore yet, no Healy, no Farrell, no Vinnie. I think my favorite thing about the series is that it takes the lone cowboy model of its hardboiled predecessors and gives us instead a community of tough but righteous people who know by instinct what to do and are fearless about doing it. Spenser may go down the mean streets pretty much untarnished, but he’s not alone. Do you remember the original ads for ER, about these being the faces you’d want to see on the worst day of your life? That’s sort of what the Spenser group makes us feel, isn’t it, that if we were in some terrible, dangerous place, they are the ones we could trust to get us out alive, and then to see justice done? Their methods can be as ugly as their antagonists’ and there’s nothing particularly reassuring about a world in which this is the group you rely on, but they live by an unspoken code of honor that is always viscerally satisfying.

The Spenser-Susan relationship is my other favorite thing about the series. It’s as good an attempt as I know to imagine a fully adult relationship in which neither partner makes any compromises but instead each one consciously (if not always flawlessly) works to let the other be fully themselves, without apology. It’s true that it is, ultimately, Spenser’s series, and we follow Susan only in relation to him; there are also many occasions when she needs to be protected from physical harm by Spenser or, more often, by his associates (as he’s off solving the case, of course)–but then, there are also many occasions when her counsel is important to Spenser, and the strength of her psychological insight is often acknowledged and used. Their personal life is not the focus of the series (these are crime novels, after all), but Parker likes to mix it up a bit, as in Small Vices, which I recently reread, where Susan proposes that they have a child. Rather than using this as an opportunity for a dramatic change in either the characters or the basic commitments of the series, Parker makes it one more test of their commitment to letting each other be. That’s no small thing. In fact, in most relationships I know anything about, that’s one of the central challenges. I find it interesting that they keep their own homes. That means it is always a choice, an affirmation, when they are together; it also suggests that even romantic partnerships (and theirs is, undoubtedly, romantic!) need to have boundaries, and allow some time and space for complete autonomy.

I realize that it is possible, and not unjustified, to find this series repetitive. To some, its fidelity to its own formula even reaches the point of tedium–or worse. Recently at The Millions, for instance, Bill Morris gets pretty scathing:

the most rabid fans tend to insist that their favorite writers not only stick to their chosen genre but produce the same book over and over again.  That’s why we keep getting robotic, risk-averse re-writers like the late Robert B. Parker.

Predictably, as a fan (though not a rabid fan) I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The books are intensely similar but they are not the same, and the variations Parker plays on his themes show ingenuity and skill. Repetition also has its own significance: people do bad things for a narrow range of reasons, and setting things straight looks about the same every time. How could it not? One of the underlying points of all mystery series, too, is that a case may conclude, but crime never does. That said, I admit that one of the attractions of reading a new instalment in the series was always knowing basically what it would be like. It was like visiting old friends–and after all, do we expect our old friends to transform each time we meet them? One reason the late books could be so sparse and elliptical is precisely that we all knew each other so well: there was no need to explain. Why shouldn’t the successful establishment of that kind of trust and intimacy be counted a literary virtue as much as the ability of a writer to surprise us or subvert our expectations? Well, OK, I agree that it’s a greater achievement to do the latter, but it’s still no small achievement to do the former. No doubt it’s partly nostalgia that makes me defensive here: I’ve been reading the Spenser books for decades, after all–not quite since 1973, but since the 1980s for sure, and so it feels as if he and Hawk and Susan just belong in my life, somehow. But I wouldn’t have kept on reading and rereading the books if I didn’t think they were worth it, and I trust myself enough as a reader to believe that if they were no better than “robotic,” I would have noticed.

*Before some rabid fan points this out, let me say that I do know Spenser’s office is not at Berkeley and Boylston in The Godwulf Manuscript: he moves there later. I did not go so far as to tour all the Spenserian locations in Boston, though!

Boston by the Books

I’m back from a wonderful five days in Boston and it seems only fitting to post first (as I did following last year’s jaunt to New York) about the books that came home with me. It was a great bookish trip, thanks to the guidance but also the company of my co-editors at Open Letters Monthly, who were all (but especially Steve Donoghue) attentive and entertaining hosts.

We made two trips to Steve’s beloved Brattle Book Shop. The first day it was drizzly so the carts were not out and our browsing was all inside–which is not a complaint, as you could browse for hours inside and still feel there were tempting treasures you hadn’t found yet. I realized only belatedly, for instance, that most of the shelves are filled two rows deep, which means I explored only one layer. That day I settled on two novels by Ivy Compton-Burnett: A House and Its Head, in the typically elegant NYRB edition, and a Penguin of A Family and a Fortune. I’ve never read any Compton-Burnett before; my interest was piqued because she is the first author chosen by Her Majesty in The Uncommon Reader. At first she’s not a hit, but after Her Majesty becomes a more experienced reader, “the novel she had once found slow now seemed refreshingly brisk, dry still, but astringently so”:

And it occurred to her … that reading was, among other things, a muscle, and one that she had seemingly developed.  She could read the novel with ease and pleasure, laughing at remarks, they were hardly jokes, that she had not even noticed before. And through it all she could hear the voice of Ivy Compton-Burnett, unsentimental, severe and wise.

On our second visit to the Brattle we browsed the dollar carts, which are filled quite miscellaneously so that you never know what might pop out at you and seem too good to resist for the price. I found Barbara Reynold’s biography of Dorothy L. Sayers (not pictured here, as it is following by steve-post). I also picked up John Updike’s collected golf writings for my husband, figuring he likes both Updike and golf so this might well be a winner! And inside again, I found The Godwulf Manuscript, which is the first of Parker’s Spenser series (I also made a pilgrimage to the corner of Boylston and Berkeley, where Spenser’s office is), and Woolf’s The Common Reader, which I owned but lent out many years ago and have never gotten back. I think I was pretty restrained, really: it’s just as well the Brattle is closed Sundays as I was right in the neighborhood and would certainly have found more. My only disappointment was that this seemed the kind of shop likely to have a copy of Testament of a Generation: The Collected Journalism of Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby–but no luck.

We went en masse to the Harvard Book Store on Thursday night. Time was limited, so all my finds come from the used section downstairs. One I was particularly glad to find was W. Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale, which is the next reading for the Slaves of Golconda book group. I also found Salley Vicker’s The Other Side of You, which some of you recommended after I wrote up Dancing Backwards. And a bit more impulsively I chose Jane Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourine: I’ve been interested in Old Filth for a while but haven’t come across it anywhere, and this one, which I see won the Whitbread Prize, looked appealingly dark and funny.

I was back in Cambridge on Friday but did all my browsing at the Coop, mostly because I had worn myself out walking all down Newbury Street earlier that day and then all around Harvard Yard (and all over Boston the two days before!). I was trying to pick books that I haven’t been able to find on the shelf up here, and one on my most-wanted list was Laila Lalami’s Secret Son which I was happy to find there. I have followed Lalami’s blog and journalism for some time, and I got Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits in New York last summer and was impressed and moved by it. I’m really interested to see what she does working on a larger canvas.

Finally, I had a pleasant browse in the big Barnes & Noble in the Prudential Center, which is an important landmark because most of the OLM team has worked there (or in another B&N location) at some time. Though it lacks the deep bookish personality of the Brattle or the Harvard Book Store, it’s still a lovely bright store for exploring. I thought since I’d been collecting so much fiction I would go a different way with my selection there; I came away with Terry Castle’s The Professor. In one of those moments that make you wonder if there isn’t a larger force organizing your “random” reading choices, I discovered that the very first essay includes a long discussion of Testament of Youth. On her first reading, Castle had not liked the book much, finding Brittain “abrasive and conceited.” She quotes Virginia Woolf’s diary entry, which she had “tended to agree with”:

I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Brittain. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, and how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled her hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and stting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly, across my eyes.

As she then explains at some length, Castle found her rereading of Testament of Youth quite a different experience, coming to appreciate how “phobic and self-critical” Brittain is,and especially  how she struggles against her fears (which Castle too was doing, post-9/11). She finds in Brittain a rare model of a woman who fought against the way women are “imprinted” with cowardice:

By coddling and patronizing its female members, society enforced in them a kind of physical timidity; then, with infuriating circularity, defined such timidity as effeminate and despicable. Both practically and philosophically, Brittain rebelled against the linkage. . . . Had I resisted her for so long–cast her off as an important Not-Me–precisely because, deep down, I felt so much like her? I found out now, with a sudden embarrassed poignancy, precisely how much I sympathized, both with her anxiety and with the florid hope that the men she knew might infect her, so to speak, with physical courage. Not very butch of me, I know. Not very feminist. But I had to confess it: I admired and coveted–quite desperately at times–the insane, uncomplaining, relentless bravery of men.

That’s not where I expected her to take the discussion, but it’s interesting and certainly provocative, as I expect the rest of the book to be.

Also pictured above is a handy little book about the MFA collection. This comes from a particularly rich but obscure book source in leafy Jamaica Plain. It was a special privilege to scavenge in the collection there! More about my experience at the MFA itself, as well as other touristy impressions of Boston, when I’ve caught up on some of the work that has been waiting for my return.

Robert B. Parker, School Days

Works for me every time! There is a certain sameness about the Spenser novels, to be sure, but their consistency is usually a virtue. And in this case, there’s a good dose of social relevance (school shootings) along with the usual psychological and social commentary–admittedly, elliptical to the extreme, but one aspect of these novels that I appreciate is how much work gets done in the silences and spaces, not in any postmodern sense of the important elements being absences or anything, but simply that when Parker’s on his game, the situations and characters are conveyed strongly enough that we can fill in the blanks, come to the conclusions, ourselves. The influence of Raymond Chandler is strong, of course, with the whole “down these mean streets a man must go…” model, but Spenser’s readiness to get mean himself when his code of honour requires it is usually the most interesting aspect of the plot. I have long admired the relationship Parker establishes for Spenser and Susan (who should surely be played by Terri Hatcher, if she can control her more gawky mannerisms?) and found the sexual and the racial politics of these novels a refreshing break from PC pieties (while insistently alert to inequities and injustices, both systemic and personal). (While I’m thinking about it, I’ll just add that I’ve always admired Dick Francis for a similar ability to imagine equal, mature , independent women for putting into relationships with his male protagonists.) I do wonder, though, about Parker’s fascination with assertively sexual women, such as Rita Fiore. Her intelligence and skill are never in doubt, and in some ways it seems a positive thing to create a character who is both a powerful professional woman and a sex kitten: women have struggled long enough with stereotypes that insist intellectual prowess is incompatible with femininity or allure. And yet I also feel that Rita plays into other cliches (fantasies?) about the qualities that make women attractive to men (OK, she’s a smart lawyer, but look at those great legs!). Because I find the ethos of the Spenser novels overall so advanced, it feels carping to fret this detail, and I don’t think Parker has any obligation to match his characters up to any specific standard in this respect. I guess I’m just surprised. Maybe this is a way to put a positive spin on the sexpot characters from the hard-boiled novels–kind of an updated, she’s on our side now, verson of Brigid O’Shaunessy? Gorgeous dames aren’t necessarily dangerous?