Robert B. Parker Analysis
Robert B. Parker was the acknowledged literary heir to Raymond Chandler. In 1988 he was asked by the Chandler estate to complete the thirty-page manuscript that Chandler was working on at the time of his death. The resulting Poodle Springs (1989) carried both authors’ names. Parker also wrote a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep (1939), which he called Perchance to Dream: Robert B. Parker’s Sequel to Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” (1991). Although Parker’s Spenser remained true to the conventions of the American hard-boiled detective as established by Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald, Parker differs from his predecessors in having combined the detective novel and the love story. Spenser is in love with Susan Silverman, a psychologist with a doctorate from Harvard. Spenser and Susan are not married and do not live together, but they have a monogamous relationship. Parker has also changed the locale from Chandler’s Los Angeles to Boston. His Boston is so fully realized that he and one of his fans, Kasho Kumagai, compiled a book entitled Spenser’s Boston (1994).
With unerring skill, Parker wrote in first-person narrative interlaced with dialogue. The reader sees everything through Spenser’s eyes; his wit enlivens every conversation. Parker’s work is highly literate. Spenser, his detective’s name, is a reference to Edmund Spenser, regarded by his contemporaries as the heir to Geoffrey Chaucer and the leading sixteenth century nondramatic English poet. The selection of name is deliberate. Chandler initially called his hero Malory after the English poet Sir Thomas Malory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Parker’s Spenser is well aware that his literary namesake wrote The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and just as aware that few of the police officers and mobsters who populate his world have heard of the English poet. Nevertheless, he frequently quips “Spenser, spelled with an ’s,’ like the English poet.” Each book of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene focuses on a knight who engages in a quest relating to a particular virtue: holiness, temperance, chastity, friendship, justice, and courtesy. Like these literary knights, Parker’s Spenser is concerned with virtue. He lives by a code that involves protecting the weak and never engaging in gratuitous murder or violence; he is faithful to Susan in spite of temptation. Honor matters; the means that he uses to solve a crime becomes as important as his success in completing a case.
Hawk, Spenser’s longtime friend, always keeps his word, and he understands but does not share Spenser’s values. Tall, black, and bald, with a ghetto background, Hawk dates Harvard professors but has shady connections with the underworld. He makes his living by working in a criminal world that Spenser knows about but rejects. Whenever Spenser needs backup, Hawk is there, working for free and exchanging wisecracks with his buddy. Other repeating characters include Martin Quirk, a police lieutenant; Lee Farrell, a homosexual police officer; Vinnie Morris, a thug who is a good shooter and loyal to Spenser and Hawk; and Rachel Wallace, a feminist and gay activist. Parker, like William Faulkner, deliberately uses the past history of his characters in new stories. This developing fictionalized context becomes its own world.
In Promised Land, Spenser is hired by Harvey Shepard to find his wife, Pam. She has taken up with Rose and Jane, who plan to organize a women’s movement modeled on the Black Panthers; they set up a bank holdup to get money to buy guns. Pam participates in this holdup, in which a man is killed. Spenser discovers that Harvey has invested unwisely in a real estate development, the Promised Land. To make good on some bad debts, he is now in the clutches of the loan shark and gangster King Power and his enforcer, Hawk. Spenser works out a scheme in which King Power sells guns to Rose and Jane, and the police pick them up. He lets Hawk know in time for him to get away from the police, and in return, Hawk saves Spenser’s life during the violent denouement.
A Catskill Eagle
The title of A Catskill Eagle (1985) is taken from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851). Spenser comes to grips with despair and jealousy when his relationship with Susan Silverman is threatened. To pursue her career, Susan has separated from Spenser. She has left him for another man, Russell Costigan, the son of the wealthy and unscrupulous Jerry Costigan. Spenser receives a short note from Susan saying that Hawk is in jail in Mill River, California, and that she also needs help. Spenser and Hawk pursue the Costigans and free Susan. Susan returns to therapy to regain her independence, and then she is reunited with Spenser.
In Small Vices (1997), the lawyers who defended Ellis Alves, a black rapist and general bad guy, think that he may have been framed for the murder of Melissa Henderson, a white coed. The law firm of Rita Fiore hires Spenser to investigate the case and see if it should be reopened. The title is taken from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606):
Through tattered clothes small vices do appear;Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks:Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.
The vices in this case are not small. Spenser discovers that the facts of the murder were covered up to protect Melissa’s rich-kid, tennis-star boyfriend. His adoptive and very affluent family hires a hit man to assassinate Spenser. After a brush with death and long rehabilitation, Spenser returns to even the score with his assassin and arrange for justice.