[(essay date spring 1998) In the following essay, Root states that the progressive liberalism seemingly embodied by Spenser actually involves placing the white, male hero in a position of power and moral authority.]
In an interview on the CBC, Robert Parker confessed that the most difficult thing about completing Raymond Chandler's Poodle Springs (a novel Chandler left unfinished at his death) was remaining true to the classic hard-boiled detective Marlowe's prejudices. Epithets and attitudes accepted by Chandler in the 1940s were much harder for Parker to write, given the difference between Chandler's time and ours, but especially given Parker's stature as the creator of Spenser, one of the most politically enlightened and sensitive of contemporary private eyes.
Spenser is the spiritual descendent of the hard-boiled detective exemplified in Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer as well as Chandler's Philip Marlowe. Spenser inherits Marlowe's toughness and his sense of himself as living outside the law. Both detectives inhabit bleak social landscapes and cynically question the social structures that encourage hypocrisy and deception. Parker is most interested in continuing the tradition of the hard-boiled detective's living by a private moral code. In his Ph.D. dissertation on Chandler, Hammett and Macdonald, written before the success of his own Spenser novels allowed Parker to give up his professorship at Northeastern University, Parker writes: "The hero, Marlowe, must maintain the purity of his private integrity by keeping it isolate, while he himself remains in the thick of the corruption by which that integrity may be tested" (qtd. in Presley 29). Parker follows Chandler by suggesting the nobility of his hero through his name: both detectives are named after Renaissance poets, with their associations of chivalry and, in Spenser's case, of the original Spenser's Red Crosse Knight. Parker goes even further than Chandler by allowing his hero only one name (Spenser has no first name), a tactic which he has commented is meant to suggest that his hero is a kind of mythic figure.
The detectives part ways, however, on issues of social consciousness. Where Marlowe's, and perhaps Chandler's, disgust at the moral decay around him manifests itself in racial and sexual stereotyping. Spenser's liberal and feminist politics are consistently impeccable.
As are Parker's. In a genre for which racial, ethnic and sexual difference is synonymous with villainy, the Spenser series--begun in 1973 with The Godwulf Manuscript and since appearing at the rate of a book a year--Small Vices (1997) being the twenty-sixth and latest--is at pains to avoid stereotyping altogether.
The novels take place in Boston, yet none of the cops is identified as being particularly Irish; the gangsters are all mob rather than mafia connected, and nary a one has an Italian name. There are no gay serial killers. There is one African American pimp, but he's distinguished from other villains in his having good taste in clothes and food, two positive attributes in Parker's moral universe. All the thugs are white, overweight, and dumb. At least two or three of them die per book, mostly because they make the mistake of thinking they are tougher than Spenser.
Like Chandler, but more obsessively, Parker focuses on what's now called the dysfunctional family. The father/villains are victims themselves of capitalist materialist culture, arriviste WASPs, vulgar and empty, cut loose from the moorings of any tradition that might have taught them how to dress, act, or take care of their families. Most of Parker's plots involve trying to save the children and/or wives from unhappy, destructive homes. In an article discussing his work, Parker writes:
Spenser cares about people who are in need of help. He is also a detective as savior of maidens. I have no desire to offend feminist critics, but women and children are better objects for salvation by a male hero than are other men. Women are less powerful still, and children are classically powerless. Spenser's commitment is less, I think, to children and women than it is to the powerless. Women and children serve as a nice metaphor for the powerless.
(Parker and Pond 194)
What is Spenser like, this private detective as social worker and savior of maidens? A former boxer who still runs and lifts weights, builds cabins, carves wood and follows sports, he has the confidence born of physical invincibility. He is also a gifted cook, well-read and given to quoting poetry. (Parker is, after all, a former English professor.) Spenser is the model of masculine self-sufficiency. He doesn't even need help choosing his ties.
In a world in which most characters are depicted as bigots, Parker gives Spenser a Jewish girlfriend, Susan Silverman, and an African American best friend, Hawk. And to round out Spenser's pluralism he becomes close friends with a gay cop, Lee Farrell, and with a lesbian-feminist writer, Rachel Wallace, after having been hired to protect her in an early novel (Looking for Rachel Wallace 1979).
Parker has created the perfect progressive private detective, sympathetic to the victimized, generous and open-minded, interested in and loyal to the people most marginalized by a brutal society. But Parker is unwilling to accept the implications of the multiculturalism he seems to espouse. Spenser's enlightened views are achieved with no loss of power or moral authority. Not only is he superior to the rich, vulgar suburbanites whose children he saves, but he is also depicted as superior to the characters supposedly his equals. While he and his friends all live outside the mainstream of society, the integrity involved in maintaining that position is made more palpable in his case than in theirs. Instead of his taking his place among them, Spenser remains the central moral arbiter; Susan, Hawk and Rachel Wallace become little more than satellites.
Women are the characters most belittled by the process in which Spenser becomes mythologized. Susan, as the one woman who plays a major role in every book, suffers the most from this process of displacement and erasure, but in order to understand her relationship with Spenser fully, it is necessary to place it in the context of what Parker calls "the unspoken and inarticulate love relationship between Spenser and Hawk" (Parker and Pond 194).
When the hero of a hard-boiled detective story is not made a complete loner by his integrity and his obsession with autonomy, his lasting bonds tend to be with other men rather than with women. Though Parker is most famous for the feminist decision to allow Spenser a romance with a woman that develops from book to book, Susan consistently shares center stage with Hawk. By examining that friendship we can see that while Parker skillfully avoids the charge of male-bonding at the expense of women characters he allows as little equality between Spenser and another man as he does between Spenser and a woman.
Hawk is depicted as being even more mysterious than Spenser because we know so little about him, except that he also has only one name--that of a decidedly inhuman bird of prey--drinks champagne, dresses well, and works as a hired gun and leg breaker. He usually appears about midway through each novel at Spenser's request. One could argue that the very mysteriousness of Hawk is "othering." He is completely outside society. He has no friends other than Susan and Spenser, and even they don't know where he lives. But even from this position of utter uniqueness, Hawk spends much of his time marvelling at the wonder of Spenser. Hawk likes to kill people quickly and cleanly and can never get over the fact that there are some Spenser would rather spare. (By the same token, however, we never see Hawk actually kill someone whom the moral universe of the books would say should be saved, so his praise for Spenser is curious.) After all, the way they met was through Hawk's being assigned to kill Spenser, a task he refused to carry out. "We alike" Hawk is often given to saying, thus according Spenser honorary brother status. "You just got more scruples than me."
Hawk and Spenser tease each other about race incessantly, yet Spenser never puts a foot wrong, never goes too far or offends Hawk. Spenser does, however, have occasion to rebuke Hawk for sexist comments about Susan's good looks. It's not that Hawk isn't sensitive about race. When Rachel Wallace, the lesbian-feminist, exclaims over the fact that Spenser commands loyalty over the years--she and Hawk have both signed on to help find Susan who may have been kidnapped--Hawk accuses her of regarding him as Spenser's sidekick because he's black--even though her comment applied equally to herself. Instead of defending herself, she says simply "I'm sorry. I can't undo it, but I won't do it again" (A Catskill Eagle 174). Instead of their having any privileged connection because of their shared experiences as marginalized figures, they are both depicted as making the kinds of missteps (Hawk is mildly homophobic) that Spenser in his mandarin purity never makes. The reader cannot help feeling that these two have been set up; the plausibility of their responses is diminished when the ideological agenda of maintaining the absolute uniqueness of Spenser is at stake.
This pattern of characters' crediting Spenser with virtues they withhold crediting in one another or in themselves recurs with startling frequency throughout the novels. It is so pervasive, in fact, that it seems to be Parker's chief method of fleshing out Spenser's character.
One of the clearest and most damning examples takes place in a conversation Spenser has with a journalist, Candy Sloan, in the novel A Savage Place (1981). Candy, a news reporter for a Los Angeles TV station, has hired Spenser as her bodyguard while she investigates a movie producer suspected of racketeering. In a brief lapse from monogamy, Spenser sleeps with Candy and has the following conversation the next morning:
"Any guilt?" Candy said to me."I don't think so.""What about the woman you're committed to?""I'm still committed to her.""Will you tell her?""Yes.""Will she mind?""Not very much," I said."Would you mind if it were the other way?""Yes.""Is that fair?""It's got nothing to do with fair," I said, "or unfair. I'm jealous. She's not. Perhaps it's a real recognition that hers would be an affair of the heart, while mine is of the flesh, so to speak.""How Victorian," Candy said. "Women make love and men fuck.""No need to generalize. We did more than fuck last night, but we're not in love." [...]"If you tell Susan, won't it make her a little unhappy to no purpose?""It might make her unhappy, but the purpose is good.""Easing your conscience?""Pop psyche," I said."What do you mean?""The world's not that simple. I tell her because we should not have things we don't tell each other.""There's more isn't there. I've oversimplified.""Sure.""Tell me.""What difference does it make?""I want to know," Candy said. "I've never met anyone like you.""Okay. I wouldn't do anything I couldn't tell her about.""Are you ashamed of this?""No.""Would you do something that would make you ashamed?""No.""Jesus," she said. "I think you wouldn't. I've heard people say that before but I never believed them. I don't think they even believed themselves. But you mean it.""It's another way of being free," I said.
Perhaps Spenser should not be begrudged his loyalty to Susan, self-righteous though it sounds, but the ease with which he flummoxes a character we've been assured is educated, intelligent, likable, independent, and feminist is, again, curious. What rings false in the dialogue here is the status accorded Spenser for rather shabbily prosaic views on the distinction between love and sex. Candy is right to point to the double standard his views rely on, but she gives up too easily and seems to have no experience of her own to match his expression of a principled rather than expedient position. With a simple gesture of distaste for generalizations, despite the extent to which what he just said fits into a rather old one, Spenser is able to maintain his status as a being completely sui generis. Candy and Spenser don't conflict over issues of sexual politics and decorum--she seems to have no position despite her feminism; everything he says has for her the force of revelation. She's pictured as fragmented and empty, Spenser as mysterious, full, whole, in spite of the fact that the focus of his decorum is entirely on his relationship with Susan rather than on the amorous encounter he has engineered with Candy. Neither the characters nor the narrative seems willing to address the sexism inherent in his poor treatment of Candy (not to mention Parker's in giving her her name). She even gets chastised for vulgarity, though she's in fact unmasking the euphemisms in his language, in which she has rightly detected an insult to herself. He counters her objections to his views with dismissive silencing gestures, "pop psyche," and at the moment when any self-respecting woman would defend herself, and even perhaps bring up the issue of whether she'll tell her boyfriend that she and Spenser slept together, she instead is made to intuit that he is even deeper than he sounds (we need her help here) and concurs with his view that she has oversimplified his position without ever trying to articulate her own. Yet to the reader, his position seems no more complex than hers might be; if anything it seems simply a stubborn and predictable refusal to accept the ways in which individual behaviors can reflect larger patriarchal structures.
Parker has said that interesting women are among the features that distinguish his work from the western (both films and novels) which helped shape the hard-boiled detective genre. Yet the following description Parker offers of the interesting women who come and go from book to book (he mentions Candy Sloan among them) reveals that his chief interest is in how these women make Spenser look rather than in them as fully developed characters: "They understand the themes important to Spenser--honor and integrity and autonomy--and one of the reasons these women are interesting is that they understand him so well. The reader also perceives Spenser as better than he might otherwise be perceived because these good women do understand him and they explain this understanding to him" (Parker and Pond 200).
What he doesn't say, but almost says, is that the women's understanding of Spenser is purchased at the price of their being able to express their own independent sense of honor, integrity or autonomy, their own "ways of being free." Their value lies in their understanding of him, nothing more. Though the reader may gain a fuller picture of Spenser through these women, s/he cannot but be aware of the extent to which they have been sacrificed to that end.
Exchanges like the one between Spenser and Candy Sloan happen again and again often on the issue of why he is or isn't willing to sleep with someone other than Susan; in fact, in Promised Land, he uses the same reasons for not sleeping with another alleged feminist, Pam Shepard, that he gave excusing his sleeping with Candy. At the end of that exchange, he informs Pam that she has been sexist in her dealings with him (she called him a gourmet cook; it is sexist to assume men can't cook and then call them "gourmet" when they can), even though he would, in the name of integrity and autonomy, resist a label like "feminist" for himself.
It can be argued, as Donna Cassela has, that the presence of Susan Silverman as a continuing character whose relationship with Spenser is permitted to develop goes against the grain of the hard-boiled detective genre and reflects Parker's commitment to deepening Spenser's character by making him open to and dependent on a woman. When Spenser meets Susan, she doesn't need saving; in fact, she becomes a kind of partner, someone to talk over difficult cases with, someone to confide in when his private moral code doesn't cover the tangled human tragedies he tries to unravel. Casella maintains that in questioning the private codes that govern Spenser's behavior--the rules he plays by--Susan becomes his "moral guide" and "effects his growth into a new breed of contemporary detective" (94). But this view of Susan's role ignores the extent to which her questioning him allows Spenser to affirm his worldview at the expense of her own.
Susan is a school guidance counselor in suburban Smithfield when she and Spenser meet in the second book in the series, God Save the Child; during the course of the next five or six books, she completes a Ph.D. in psychology at Harvard and becomes a therapist. Toward the end of that process, their relationship founders; Susan leaves Spenser and heads for California to find herself.
As they often remark, Susan and Spenser are in the same line of work--helping people sort out their lives. They are both good at what they do and are engaged by life. As Donald Greiner argues, "Susan Silverman is different. [She] is a pro, a woman ... who can talk about 'hard things'" (40). That she and Spenser have these rigorous conversations, however, must largely be taken on faith. While she is often depicted as reading difficult books (lounging by the pool with Bruno Bettleheim, for example) most of their conversations have to do with sex. She never seems too tired or preoccupied with her work to be absolutely smitten with Spenser's physical prowess.
What he likes best about Susan is how alive she is, in contrast to the books' villains and victims who are empty both of morals and enthusiasm. But despite his insistence on that quality in her, what Spenser emphasizes over and over are her looks, how long she takes to get dressed for any occasion (and as a consequence how perfect she looks) and how little she eats. She sips one glass of wine to his several beers or scotches and barely nibbles at whatever he cooks for her or whatever she orders when they eat out. In a recent book, Walking Shadow, Spenser and Hawk regard her eating habits with bemusement:
The entrees arrived. Susan cut her tuna steak in two and put one half of it aside on the butter plate. Hawk watched her."Trying to lose some weight?" Hawk asked in a neutral voice."Yes. I have three or four pounds of disgusting fat that I want to get rid of."Hawk said, "Uh huh.""I know, maybe you can't see it, but it's there."Hawk looked at me."I've missed it too." I said. "And I'm a trained detective."
It doesn't take a trained detective to see that there might be a connection between Spenser's (as well as the culture's) obsession with looks and Susan's persistent near-anorexia. Yet Spenser admires Susan's food and makeup rituals as though they were her version of a private moral code and deserving of his respect for their mystery and their capacity to express her essential nature.
When they do talk over the "hard things" they are often subtly pitted against one another. She often questions the "Hemingwayesque" codes that govern his behavior and grows frustrated with the sense of honor that dictates that there are certain things he will not do and a certain way to do the things he does. Their greatest conflicts occur when the code has failed him, and he finds himself awash in despair for the deaths he could not prevent. While she is sometimes willing to comfort him in these situations and to assure him that he is still a good man, she more often is bitter over his insistence on taking responsibility for things she thinks he should recognize as being beyond his control.
Parker makes it clear that Spenser doesn't have all the answers, but his despair is always the consequence of unmet ideals and hence romantic rather than cynical. Part of his code, then, includes second-guessing himself, wishing that he could heal the world. His despairing bewilderment that he can't in turn becomes a moral quality, an unwillingness to give up easily or live with easy answers. Each person he cannot save remains vivid for him in a way that no amount of knowledge that the saving was beyond anyone's power can deflect.
His approach to people allows for complexity, ambiguity, and mystery while Susan is consistently reductive and clinical even in her attempts to comfort him. As Susan approaches her degree, her humanity drains away, her speech thickens with jargon and becomes clotted with obfuscatory academic clichés; she makes observations which, when Spenser translates them into plain English, sound either simple-minded or mean-spirited. As with the news reporter, Candy Sloan, Parker gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Susan is presented as intelligent, beautiful, and trustworthy, but is given ridiculous lines. In this way, Spenser gets credit for appreciating strong, smart women, without their posing any threat to his moral authority.
Insofar as Spenser's moral code is a masculine ethos shared with other men (or at least with Hawk) Rachel Wallace, as a feminist, shares Susan's impatience and regards the code with a kind of mocking disbelief:
"And he knew that you were alone at the door. How could he know someone wasn't forcing you to lie at gunpoint?"Hawk looked at me sadly."If I understand your question," I said, "Hawk wouldn't do it.""Even under the threat of death he wouldn't betray you?""I doubt that either of us has thought of it that elegantly, but no, he wouldn't.""And you know that?""Yes.""How can you be sure?""Cause he know he wouldn't," Hawk said.Rachel Wallace shook her head impatiently. "That's what I'm trying to get at. How do you know he wouldn't? How do you know he knows he wouldn't. Do you discuss these things?""One doesn't" I said."Oh God, spare me the Hemingway posturing," she said.
(A Catskill Eagle 319-20)
As with so many scenes in which characters feed Spenser lines, the reader is surprised that Rachel Wallace should find the trust Spenser and Hawk place in each other so inexplicable. Surely cops work on the assumption that their partners will risk their lives for them, as do mountain climbers, and anyone engaged in life-threatening team work. It would be more surprising if Rachel Wallace were to speak what remains implied here: that she cannot imagine a circumstance under which she would lay down her life. One might expect her at least to speculate on the quality of her own courage; rejecting their commitment to support each other as "Hemingway posturing" redefines a human dilemma as a masculine one and needlessly limits the scope of female action.
The whole issue of Susan and Spenser's relationship-in-trouble, which takes several books to resolve, seems to be an elaborate ruse to put Susan in her place. Parker intertwines the relationship plot with the obligatory suspense plot in A Catskill Eagle (1985) requiring his readers to believe that Susan leaves Spenser for the son of a rabidly anti-Semitic, white-supremacist billionaire involved in illegal arms deals. The son, Russell, is a lobbyist for his father's causes, yet Susan never seems to have inquired into the nature of the family business. Next thing she knows, she's being held captive on a compound where her lover's family trains soldiers of fortune and enslaves illegal aliens. Even after Spenser rescues her, kills the dad, spares the son, and frees the slaves, Susan insists that she and Jerry need to "achieve closure." Despite her training, she appears to be a victim of the kind of "pop psyche" Spenser dismissed in Candy Sloan.
The final blow in the assassination of Susan's character comes when she and Spenser are safely back together as a couple. In Crimson Joy (1987) Parker resorts to the last move of a desperate mystery writer by making one of Susan's patients a serial killer with a mother complex and by violating the first-person narrative conventions the series has set up by providing interludes from the killer's point of view. Far from discovering his guilt in the course of therapy, Susan needs to be convinced the killer is one of her patients and then protected from him. It's interesting that for this final cutting-down-to-size Parker resorts to such a formulaic plot, revealing his stories have more in common than he'd be likely to admit with what is basically a reactionary genre.
In the latest three or four books, Susan has been subdued, made almost inert. She seems to have learned well the lesson that her position as a woman or as a trained psychologist accord her no special powers of insight. In Spenser's world, he remains the sole arbiter of moral and ethical issues. As the following moment demonstrates, she is now happy to be led so that they can both enjoy the foolishness of the whole enterprise of her work:
The logs had begun to catch in the fireplace, and the fire got deeper and richer and both of us stared into it in silence."You ever wonder why people stare into fires" I said."Yes," Susan said."You ever figure out why?""No.""You're a shrink," I said. "You're supposed to know stuff like that.""Oh," Susan said. "That's right. Well, it's probably a somatic impulse rooted in neonatal adaptivity. People will gaze at clothes in a dryer too.""I liked your previous answer better," I said."Me too," Susan said.
On one level this scene shows that Susan can laugh at herself, not a bad thing in an academic, but her self-mockery amounts to self-censoring. The price of hers and Spenser's happiness together is the silencing of Susan's independent voice.
We may ask how much has really changed since the 1940s when Chandler indulged his reactionary attitudes. Certainly not much in the genre as a whole. Even for writers like Parker who may believe they have transcended narrow prejudices and created enlightened heroes, the fantasy persists of the white, heterosexual male outlaw as the only fully realized self, free and honorable in a repressive, conformist and corrupt society.
Rather than allowing his hero to share his privileged perspective with others who are also alienated from the mainstream, which at first seems to be Parker's aim in introducing Susan, Hawk, and Rachel Wallace, Parker devises strategies by which Spenser is able to shore up his position at their expense.
While Chandler's Marlowe is openly misanthropic on all fronts, Spenser pretends to a pluralism Parker clearly doesn't grasp. In other words, Spenser is like so many liberals of the '70s, '80s, and now '90s, trying to adapt to a landscape changed by the women's and the civil rights movements. He seems willing to relinquish the old forms of power and privilege in order to celebrate a more egalitarian and just social world, but all the time he is unobtrusively usurping and thereby silencing the voices that might undermine that power.
Casella, Donna R. "The Trouble with Susan: Women in Robert B. Parker's Spenser Novels." Clues 10 (1989): 93-105.
Greiner, Donald J. "Robert B. Parker and the Jock of the Mean Streets." Critique 1984: 36-44.
Parker, Robert, and Anne Pond. "What I Know about Writing Spenser Novels." Colloquium on Crime. Ed. Robin W. Winks. New York: Scribner, 1986.
Presley, John W. "Theory into Practice: Robert Parker's Re-Interpretation of the American Tradition." Journal of American Culture 12 (1989): 27-30.
Ross, Jean W. "Interview with Robert Parker." Contemporary Authors 26: 312-16.