Sunday, April 12, 2015

Book Review/Essay: Valediction and the Spenser Canon

WARNING: Contains some modest spoilers. Also, this is more essay and less review than is customary in this space.

Robert B. Parker

I started thinking about Robert B. Parker after a close friend of mine reread The Godwulf Manuscript

Parker wrote no less than forty novels featuring his iconic private eye, Spenser. The first eleven, written between 1973 and 1984, are all at least good; the best among them--I'd pick Promised Land, Looking for Rachel Wallace, and Early Autumn--are among the best novels of any sort I've ever read. They're morally complex; they're ambitious; they have both lovely descriptive writing and super-taut dialogue. Valediction is the last of these "classic Spenser" novels. 

The rest range from OK to lousy.

We're not talking gradual decline here. It's a sharp, clean break, and the breaking point is the twelfth novel, A Catskill Eagle. Put plainly, it's awful. Parker's marriage broke down about this point, and A Catskill Eagle is a revenge-therapy wet dream. Spenser's long-time girlfriend Susan Silverman leaves him; her new lover turns out to be not a mere bad guy, but a megalomaniac militarist would-be dictator. So Spenser gets to kill him and kill off most of the private army he's building in the wild, remote, unexplored hills of Connecticut (whose nickname is not "The wild, remote, unexplored hills state"), and Susan comes back, and admits that he was right and she was wrong and she made a terrible mistake and never again and ... just take my word for it, it's embarrassingly bad.

From that point onward, Parker stopped taking risks with his novels. Increasingly, they read like drafts or outlines of books, not finished books.

One way to see this is simply by comparing the language. Here's the opening of The Widening Gyre (1983):
I was nursing a bottle of Murphy's Irish Whiskey, drinking it from the neck of the bottle sparingly, and looking down from the window of my office at Berkeley Street where it crosses Boylston.
It was dark and there wasn't much traffic down there. Across the street there were people working late in the ad agency, but the office where the brunette art director worked was dark. The silence in my office was linear and dwindling, like an art-perspective exercise. The building was pretty much empty for the night and the occasional faraway drone and jolt of the elevator only added energy to the silence. 
By contrast, Now and Then (2007) opens with a seven-page chapter which is almost 100% dialogue. No mood, no scene-setting. It's pretty good dialogue, but the older books had dialogue that was just as good, plus they had the other stuff.

That's symptomatic of the changes in the novels. Chapters get shorter. Descriptions disappear. Everything except dialogue and action is pared away. 

And, in this paring away, Parker loses the things that make his early novels so brilliant. It's not just language. He loses the depth, the complexity, and the humanity that the language was there to support.

Classic Spenser has two interlinked stories. The "outer" story is the crime/mystery plot. The "inner" story is something that affects Spenser himself, personally. 

  • In Mortal Stakes, Spenser investigates a real-estate developer's missing wife, but ends up having to confront questions of his own relationship with Susan, and the larger question of what marriage and commitment really entail.
  • In Looking for Rachel Wallace Spenser is hired as a bodyguard for a prominent lesbian author, and fails--and so he has to think about what it means to be masculine, and what it means to be a good man.
  • In Early Autumn, Spenser ends up informally adopting the neglected son of squabbling, divorced parents--not because he wants to, but because all the alternatives are worse--and has to figure out what that means for himself, for the boy, and for Susan.

After A Catskill Eagle, the "inner" story vanishes. Spenser is generally secure, to the point where he starts getting smug. When he and Susan come into conflict, he is always right, and she is always wrong, and she always ends up admitting it. (This happens all the time in real-world relationships, I'm sure.) The early Spenser uses violence sparingly, and there are always consequences; in Mortal Stakes, for instance, he spends a good three pages in the final chapter trying to work out his own conflicted feelings after shooting two thugs. The later books almost always end in a gunfight, which Spenser treats as routine. Even Spenser's relationships with the secondary characters--Hawk, Lieutenant Quirk, and others--become sketchy: the early books have tension and conflict there, where the later books have everyone acting like members of the same Secret Boys' Club.

Well, so be it. I've never written anything as good as the first eleven Spenser books, and I'm in no position to criticize a working author for writing books that will sell, and in any case I think any author has a right to be judged on his best work instead of his worst. I think of the later volumes as the story of a deutero-Spenser, another character who has somehow taken up the identity of the originals. Some of them are tolerable enough for me to have reread. But the original Spenser is incomparable.

As for Valediction itself, it's not the best of the classics, but it's good. It has the inner story (Susan takes a job in San Francisco) interlinked with the outer one (a possessive client hires Spenser to find his girlfriend). It's got a very good, very tight character portrait of a man trying to function when he feels like he's got no reason to function. It's got a good take on love and romance. 

And it's got an arresting last sentence, which to my mind is indeed a valediction of sorts: the last sentence of the original Spenser:
And the two of us sat alone and far, and laughed carefully together at the verge of different oceans. 


  1. I think that part of being famous and successful, and famously successful, means you can get away with half baked. I only wish I had it so bad. I just recently read some of Dean Koontz's Odd Thomas sequels. I was a big fan of the first book; he did a great job of setting up the world and it's rules (at least as much as our narrator knows them). He also has a wonderfully discursive style that shows both character and is descriptive.

    I'm less willing to forgive certain aspects of the later books, however. Even in the first novel, Koontz would use tricks like psychic magnetism, as he calls it, which is his way of connecting Thomas with the plot. I could deal with it once, but not the whole book, and not the whole series. I still love the descriptions and character, but the magic is gone.

    Like you, I'm hardly a best selling author, so who am I to say. I guess I'd just rather wait the extra six months for the last edit and rewrite.

    1. Agree entirely, including the Odd Thomas sequels. The original had a distinctive voice and a surprising, unpredictable trajectory. The sequels ... do not. I think there's a common pattern where an author puts all his time and love into a single book--particularly an unpublished author. The first book is the one you live with. That's the one you go back to over and over, writing and rewriting.

      But, if that first book is a hit, there's no incentive to do the same with the sequels. The publisher doesn't care, the fans don't care, and in most cases it seems like the writer doesn't care either.

      Case studies: Tom Clancy, J. K. Rowling, George Lucas.