Post Road Magazine #30

Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels

Brian Morton

In the early part of the last decade, a family member was undergoing protracted treatments at the Duke University Medical Center, and I was commuting every week between Durham and my job in New York. In the Raleigh-Durham airport I would begin one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, and I'd be reading the last pages when the plane touched down at LaGuardia. They were the perfect length, and the perfect reading experience for that moment.

Part of what they gave me was the pleasure of old-fashioned escapism. Spenser, Parker's private detective hero, is effortlessly competent: hardboiled enough to fight off teams of thugs; erudite enough to quote Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens; resourceful enough to look in the refrigerator and fix up pork tenderloins brushed with honey, corn flour biscuits, and a white bean and pepper salad for someone in trouble who shows up at his door. The Spenser novels are an extended exercise in wish fulfillment.

But they also give us something more, and this is where the line between genre fiction and literary fiction disappears. Parker, who died in 2010, was asking the same questions that serious writers have always asked.

In the second novel, Spenser becomes involved with a psychologist named Susan Silverman, and they stay together during the many books that follow. Spenser and Susan are intensely devoted to each other, but also intensely protective of their autonomy-they never marry, never move in together-and in his examination of love, what it gives and what it costs, Parker was light years ahead of any male writer of his generation that I can think of. He's also ahead of them in his depiction of a relationship of deep mutual respect. I don't think there's anything like it in Bellow or Mailer or Ellison or Baldwin or Yates or Roth.

In my favorite of the novels, Early Autumn, Spenser encounters a teenager whose divorced parents are struggling viciously over his custody. Spenser, hired by one parent to shield the boy from the other, ends up shielding him from both, and becomes the first adult to help him figure out what he wants in life. What he wants, it turns out, is to be a dancer, a desire that he's ashamed of, in part because it horrifies both of his parents. Spenser helps him grow comfortable with, and finally proud of, his individuality. The idea that underlies the novel-the idea that underlies most of the novels-is that the best life is one in which you allow yourself to grow in your own distinctive way and help others to grow in theirs.

Parker's writing is witty and swift. In a 1977 review of the poetry of C.K. Williams, Helen Vendler quotes the line "A whole section of the city I live in had been urban renewed," and comments, "The man who could write that line could get all of our speech down, if he wanted to." Parker was there first. His fourth Spenser novel, Promised Land, published in 1976, begins, "I had been urban-renewed right out of my office and had to move uptown." He, too, could get our language down.

After the first ten years of Spenser novels, Parker began phoning it in, and little that he wrote after 1985 or so is of value. But before that, he wrote books that deserve to be remembered—page-turners with intelligence, wit, and heart.

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