Did Robert B. Parker ever write a bad sentence? The question arose as I read Parker's latest Spenser novel, Painted Ladies. The book has a bittersweet aura. I always enjoy Parker's spare prose and crackling dialogue seasoned with wisecracks and literary allusions. Parker writes in the new novel that actors use the word "indicating" to mean the moment when audiences can tell an actor is acting. Parker never indicates that he is writing. But this is a posthumous book. Parker died this past January. There will be one more Spenser novel published next May and supposedly a holiday novel or even others at some point. Every page of this book is haunted by the fact of the author's death.
I used my reading to ponder why Parker was so good. I first ruled out plotting. The books generally have no intricate plots. There aren't red herrings and mysterious clues. Final pages don't offer shocking revelations. Mostly Spenser puts himself in harm's way to lure the evildoers. Some fans don't like Susan Silverman, Spenser's idealized lover, or Pearl, his dog. But they were a crucial part of his world. They propelled his character. Spenser was a gourmet cook, a weight lifter, an ex-cop and ex-boxer, a man who loved to be wanted by women he could then tell that he was taken. Spenser's Boston world was interesting but not interesting enough to explain the character's success.
Many of Spenser's fans believe that Spenser's relationship with Hawk is the key ingredient. The idea of two males of different races joining in friendship is deeply embedded in American literature. And, indeed, much of the banter between the two men takes note of Hawk's blackness and therefore his differences with Spenser. But Hawk's appeal is not really because of racial complementarity. The appeal stems from Hawk's toughness. Spenser is hard; Hawk is steel. Spenser is a descendent of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe who, unlike, say, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, discovered that reason was enough to solve crimes. They had to mix a quick intelligence with brute force. Spenser and Hawk both had that mix, but Hawk was more willing to rely on the force. His understanding of the human condition didn't have Spenser's romantic dimension. The two men were two sides of a single total hero. Hawk was the rougher side, the godfather of many characters who would emerge as the more violent sidekicks of detective heroes. Think of Joe Pike who teams with Elvis Cole in Robert Crais' books or Win Lockwood who teams with Myron Bolitar in Harlan Coben's books.
What separates Spenser from relying solely on his physical prowess is his code of ethics. Susan reminds him of that code. His work tempts him to cross the line. It is this internal struggle between thug and hero that is the moral center of every book. Spenser is both civilized and discontented with civilization. He knows what the real world is like but struggles to create his own honorable world within the real one.
Parker's books about Spenser are dramatic morality plays, often about women or adolescents in trouble. Spenser makes readers see the gradations of morality, the interstices of relationships where insights often hide. If we readers can't go around punching people the way Spenser does, we nevertheless can learn from him how to see the moral dimensions in our own lives in new and deeper ways. We can learn from Robert B. Parker how to be detectives of the human soul.