Wynn Wheldon

A Gawain for our times

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In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero

Otto Penzler

BenBella Books/ Perseus, pp. 257, £

As a subject for literature, virtue and its celebration is fairly unfashionable. This is particularly true in Britain, where we like to maintain ironic detachment. This perhaps explains why Robert B. Parker and his private eye, Spenser, have never found their way into regular dinner-party chat on this side of the Atlantic.

In America, as this festschrift demonstrates, Parker is seen as the natural successor to Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald, and Spenser the latest in a line that runs from the Continental Op through Sam Spade to Marlowe and Lew Archer.

In his preface to the Fairie Queene Edmund Spenser wrote that his aim was ‘to fashion a gentleman or noble person in virtuous and gentle discipline’. The poem is full of knights vanquishing dragons, virtue triumphing over vice. The poet’s modern namesake would have been very much at home. The name of course is not an accident, and it has a twofold resonance in its nod to Chandler’s hero, also named after an Elizabethan poet.

Spenser is a Boston private eye who, while respecting the law, feels that the law does not always serve justice.  When talking with his partner, Harvard PhD psychotherapist Susan Silverman (as far from a floozy as it possible to imagine), there is often talk of Spenser’s ‘code’.  It is this code that defines him, and it is astonishingly simple given the weight it carries. The code is: do the right thing.

In his essay ‘A Man for all Seasonings’, Brendon Dubois quotes Spenser from the early novel, Promised Land:

I try to be honorable. I know that’s embarrassing to hear. It’s embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live largely on my own terms.

Parker himself later said: ‘What makes [Spenser] interesting is his struggle for autonomy.’

An autodidact, Spenser is highly literate. In Mortal Stakes, the third novel of what would be a 39-book series (Parker died at his desk in 2010) his bedtime reading is Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of the United States and the literary references are everywhere.  It is a little like reading Wodehouse: I counted three Shakespeare plays, six poets, six novelists, another playwright and John Wesley. All canonical. Spenser is an Arnoldian liberal. One imagines he would have little time for critical theory.

Robert B. Parker is important not simply because he is a joy to read, as limpid and refreshing as iced tapwater, but because, as more than one contributor asserts, he rescued his genre. The Godwulf Manuscript, the first Spenser novel, was published in 1973, the second year of Watergate, the USA rocking from the humiliation of its retreat from Vietnam. As a symbol of the return of pure virtue in the form of knight errant, Spenser could not have been better timed.

While clearly owing a huge debt to them, Spenser differs from his forebears in being a happy man, in recognising women as equals, in being monogamous, and in being a gourmet cook. He likes good doughnuts but on stakeouts he’ll pick up ‘a loaf of Syrian bread, some feta cheese and a pound of kalamata olives’. For Susan Silverman he is wont to cook ‘grilled buffalo tenderloin marinated in red wine and garlic with

fiddlehead ferns, corn pudding and red potatoes cooked with bay leaves’. That sort of thing.

If Spenser were merely a good guy who duffs up the bad guys he would be a bore.  What distinguishes him is his wit and the manner in which he resolves the moral complications that confront him. Most Spenser novels are short and their plots are simple. Lawrence Block in ‘They Like the Way it Sounds’:

Here’s a Spenser plot: 1. A client brings Spenser a problem. 2. Spenser studies the situation and figures it out. 3. Spenser addresses the problem and brings it to a successful conclusion.

What Block leaves out is that the addressing of the problem almost always requires Spenser to work out what his moral imperatives are before he goes into action.

The final secret of Spenser is that what Parker was really writing was not hard-boiled realism, but Romance. As Lawrence Block says: ‘It was Parker’s special province to write Romance in a realistic style.’ Spenser is a Gawain for our times.