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Bad Business

I have a confession to make. I’m a Spenser junkie. I’ve read every one of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, some twice, some three times, some even more than that. I remember the first time I read one of his novels: it was about 1986, I was in Chicago visiting relatives, down in the Loop for a little sightseeing. Since “sightseeing” for my family usually involved bookstores (a pursuit that continues to this day, mind you), we were in a Crown Books for several hours.

I’d already completed my review of the science fiction and fantasy section (my typical haunt) and while we waited for my dad to finish his exhaustive examination of every book in the store I decided to glance through the mystery section as well. I just happened to pick up Taming a Seahorse, and well, I was hooked. I read half of it standing there in the store. I bought the book and finished the rest of it that day. Then I went back and collected the other books in the series. To a teenage boy whose head was full of comic book heroes, Spenser was really cool: a big tough guy who could quote literature, cook a fancy meal, and beat the crap out of anybody who crossed him. And if he couldn’t beat them crapless, he’d call in his buddy Hawk.

I’d always loved snappy, witty dialogue, and Parker’s books fit the bill, right along with Greg McDonald’s Fletch books. The mysteries weren’t particularly complicated, no intricate locked room murders requiring Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot. It was straight-forward action, featuring a detective whose basic motto was to wander around being a pain in the ass until something happened. It was interesting to read the books as I did, because Spenser’s evolution from a clone of Phillip Marlowe or Lew Archer was interesting. He went from basic gumshoe in The Godwulf Manuscript to avenging terrorism in The Judas Goat to freelance “wet work” for the CIA in A Catskill Eagle. That book represented something of a watershed for the sleuth, however: perhaps Parker realized Spenser was about to jump the shark and decided to rip the big “S” off his chest. The books that followed were generally smaller in scale, bringing Spenser back into role of detective.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the books was the passage of time: when the series started in the early 1970s, Spenser was about 40 years old. For a while, he aged with the books, and Parker routinely referenced Spenser’s military service in Korea, his boxing experiences in the 1960s, and various other cultural notes that dated his hero. By the late 1980s, though, it was hard to maintain the image of Hawk and Spenser as fearsome tough guys: they would be pushing 60, and slowly but surely we saw fewer of those references. Yes, last year saw 71-year-old former Marine Gene Hackman in a fistfight with the driver of another vehicle, and Secondhand Lions featured Robert Duvall as an aging warrior, but by and large readers expectations are that their action heroes aren’t too old. Spenser drifted into a somewhat graceful agelessness, where he was forever tough, and those around him were likewise frozen in perfection (most notably Susan Silverman, his love interest and the woman for whom he’d killed countless people in A Catskill Eagle).

Given this semi-displacement from time, however, I think the later books have suffered somewhat, and they’ve fallen into a sort of comfortable routine. A client will ask Spenser to investigate something, and Spenser will start to do so, only to discover that the client hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with him, and then Spenser will proceed despite warnings to “back off.” At some point in each book, there will be a conversation about the nature of tough guys and why Spenser and Hawk and their buddies act the way they do. You can almost set your watch by each incident, because they’ll be there. But on the flipside, even a comfortably predictable Spenser is still fun.

Take for example the latest foray in the series (number thirty-one, for those counting), Bad Business. The plot is relatively routine: Spenser is hired by Marlene Rowley to find proof that her husband, Trent, is cheating on her. Trent Rowley is the CFO of an energy company called Kinergy, and it doesn’t take Spenser long to discover that Kinergy’s power players don’t believe in the bonds of matrimony, preferring instead the ideal of “courtly love” preached by radio personality Darrin O’Mara. In other words, all the executives at Kinergy seem to enjoy a little spouse-swapping.

Perhaps the unusual interpersonal connections of Kinergy staff explain why Spenser keeps running into other private investigators, but it doesn’t necessarily explain why Trent Rowley suddenly shows up dead, shot to death in his posh Kinergy office. Ultimately, however, Spenser starts to unravel a criminal plot to artificially inflate Kinergy’s value and siphon off the money through some accounting sleight of hand. The novel features less violence than is common for Spenser. Which basically means he doesn’t hit anybody, which has to be a first – perhaps Parker is subtly making allowances for his character’s “age” after all. The closing scene, in which all the suspects end up in a room with Spenser, suggests the same thing: this is the first time Parker tried an “Agatha Christie” like ending to one of his stories. Since if Spenser actually acted his age, he’d be about as old as Miss Marple, maybe such an ending is appropriate, but it actually seems oddly out of place in Spenser’s tough guy universe.

While some scenes (most notably the obligatory “Why is Spenser the way he is” scene) feel tired, especially to one who has read all the other novels, Parker still manages to produce a fair amount of humor in the banter between Spenser and Hawk. The addition of Hawk’s current paramour, a physician named Claire, doesn’t hurt either: she banters well with the big boys. And while Spenser sometimes feels like the literary equivalent of the businessman a bit tired of his job, there’s still enough sparkle to justify the journey.

About Bill Wallo

  • http://www.crutnacker.com The Crutnacker

    Excellent review, encapsules my thoughts exactly about the Spenser books. They’re comfortable, fun reads, but they’re all the same these days.