First Posted: 2/20/2015
If you didn’t get enough sweet stuff on Valentine’s Day, why not treat yourself to some brain candy? Just think: no calories, no cavities and only a teensy bit of guilt for indulging in fun, easy reading. I’m currently pigging out on the late Robert B. Parker’s series devoted to Spenser, a private investigator, and I have to warn you – these books are as addictive as chocolate-covered truffles.
Spenser may have his roots in Raymond Chandler’s hard-boiled detective, Philip Marlowe, but he’s a kinder, gentler, funnier and more enlightened version. Literate, playful and endearingly corny, Spenser (whose first name is never mentioned) lives and works in Boston, as did his creator.
Parker reveals Spenser’s macho side by making him a supremely self-confident man more than happy to put up his dukes or pull out his gun when he encounters nasty adversaries. Likewise, although his clients often present him with seemingly unsolvable mysteries and thorny problems, Spenser is tenacious and implacable.
He often continues to work on a case even after he’s been fired, and will work for a dozen doughnuts when his clients can’t pay his fees because he feels compelled to seek justice – which sometimes comes in unusual forms. True to his manly man persona, Spenser also has a high regard for his sexual prowess, but unlike his love ‘em and leave ‘em forebears, he’s entirely faithful to his long-time love, Susan Silverman.
Susan is gorgeous and stylish, but she’s no lightweight. Early in the series, she’s a high school guidance counselor, but eventually earns her PhD from Harvard and becomes a psychotherapist. As such, she often gives Spenser valuable insights that help him understand himself, his friends and enemies. She also accepts the dangerous aspects of his work and shares his healthy enjoyment in the pleasures of lovemaking.
The secret to their success as a couple is that, while they spend a great deal of time together, they live apart. In one book, they try to share a house with almost disastrous results. Both are too independent to be tied to the everyday demands of domestic unblissfulness.
Although the lovebirds live separately, they share custody of a series of German short-hair pointers named Pearl. Pearl doesn’t play much of a role in the books’ actual plots, but she does add humor with her doggy devotion to food, avid squirrel-watching and penchant for inserting her large and jealous body between the two lovers on the couch or in bed.
Their regard for food is about the only area in which Susan and Spenser differ. Spenser is a gourmand and a gourmet cook, whereas Susan can barely boil an egg. While Spenser chows down with tremendous relish, Susan eats like a penitent: a tiny forkful of salmon, one nibble of a bagel, the merest sip of wine and she appears totally satisfied. She’s been known to make her martini olive last for an entire meal.
While most of the characters who inhabit Spenser’s world are pretty one-dimensional, you gotta love ‘em. I’m crazy about the mysterious Hawk, who, next to Susan, is Spenser’s best friend. In some sense, Hawk may represent Spenser’s dark side, since he has a shady past and is a gun-for-hire known to operate on both sides of the law. But the two men are fiercely loyal to one another and Hawk always has Spenser’s back. It’s such fun to listen to the two of them trade one-liners and indulge in conversations so terse they put Hemingway to shame, and to watch Hawk, who is African-American, switch effortlessly from a self-mocking stereotype to a suave, sophisticated man of the world. Parker is stingy about revealing much about Hawk’s motivation, but the man makes a fearsome and formidable enemy.
Spenser’s other colleagues include good guys, like his former boxing trainer, Henry Cimini, the diminutive owner of the gym where Spenser and Hawk work out regularly, and Martin Quirk, captain of Boston’s homicide division. Quirk is a natty dresser who, unbelievably, seems to turn a blind eye when Spenser guns down some dirt bag. But Spenser also gets help from a bunch of scary dudes who live on the other side of the law: Victor del Rio, the Los Angeles crime boss who sometimes lends Spenser the services of his in-house killer, Chollo, and Vinnie, a hit man for the Boston mob.
Most of his characters may be flat, but Parker makes up for this with dialogue that sparkles with wit, irony and snappy repartee. I love that Spenser often quotes Shakespeare, Auden and other literary lions and lionesses – perhaps a nod to Parker’s own PhD in literature and college teaching career. These sneaky quotes serve more than entertainment value, however. It’s as if Spenser uses them to test his listeners. Characters who get the references are usually the good guys. Those who don’t prove to be either scumbags or the sort of shallow, pretentious, pompous idiots Spenser despises.
You can eat your way through a Spencer novel in a day if you have nothing better to do. However, aside from its sheer entertainment value, the best part of Parker’s brand of brain candy is that his Spenser mysteries so often have an underlying theme of redemption. He shows that, although characters may be jerks, murderous criminals, cowards or lost souls, they can be led to do the right thing. It is Spencer, with his endless reservoir of patience and basic faith in human goodness, who provides the encouragement and opportunities for change. This little bit of gravitas is what keeps me coming back for more.