ROBERT B. PARKER. Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980).

21 Mar

This fairly early installment in the saga of Boston-based P.I. Spenser is also among the most admired books in the series. Spenser, as critics have noted, is not so much a private detective as he is a private avenger. LookingRachelWallace.jpgHe doesn’t break alibis; he busts heads. Instead of tracking down clues using his intellect, he vanquishes bad guys using his fists. Which isn’t to say that Spenser lacks wit. His first-person telling of this tale, about the kidnaping of a lesbian-feminist writer whom he had been hired to guard, abounds in clever dialogue and wry patter. That, along with Parker’s high-octane ability to move briskly from scene to scene, is what distinguishes the Spenser canon as a whole and this entry in particular. Far less impressive is Parker’s approach to plotting and characterization. In this instance, the story and the people who drive it are too thinly drawn to be compelling in their own right, and too rudimentary to generate a worthy challenge for Spenser. Even his sparring with Rachel Wallace—she assails the male protective instinct; he defends it—has a stagy (and now-dated) quality. Parker endows Spenser with a brute mastery of everything and everyone around him, and thereby stacks the narrative deck all too clearly in the avenger-hero’s favor.

[ADDENDUM: For many years, I lived in or near Boston, and I’m generally drawn to fiction that conveys a strong sense of any place where I’ve lived or that I’ve visited. So I very much wanted to like the Spenser novels. I tried a few of them, and they were a disappointment. I once read a line by John Updike, in a review of a book by J.D. Salinger, that struck a chord with me. “Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. … He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation,” Update wrote. That captures my response to a fair number of detective-genre writers who use series heroes, and none more so than Parker. He just loves Spenser too much. And for me, at least, it’s tiresome to spend time with a character who is so plainly a creature of authorial wish fulfillment.]


Posted by on March 21, 2013 in American, Hard-Boiled, Novel


14 responses to “ROBERT B. PARKER. Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980).

  1. westwoodrich

    March 21, 2013 at 11:55 PM

    I find I can only read one Spencer at a time as I’ve usually had enough of him by the end. That Updike quotation is spot on.

    • Mike

      March 22, 2013 at 9:17 AM

      Thanks for the comment, Rich (do I have that right?). Parker and his oeuvre are so universally lauded that I felt a bit sheepish about posting a generally negative review of this book, which (as I note) many readers believe to be a high point of the series. So it’s nice to hear that I’m not alone in resisting Spenser’s charms.

      • westwoodrich

        March 24, 2013 at 3:46 PM

        Thanks Mike – it is Rich :-)

  2. Cavershamragu

    March 22, 2013 at 7:45 AM

    Definitely not series for you Mike by the sounds of things! I definitely have enjoyed the Spenser books a bit more than you have, thogh it’s been a while since I gave him a whirl. I used to love his humour and the descriptions of food were also teriffic – but it’s possible that time has not been kind to books that were to a degree an attept to update the genre to the 70s. I do think Spenser is a bit less thuggish than you suggest though – he’s no Mike Hammer! Besides, he usually gets Hawk to do the reall bad stuff!

    • Mike

      March 22, 2013 at 10:03 AM

      Your points are well taken, Sergio. The fact is, I don’t much like writing or posting negative reviews. To me, it’s much more fun to praise a work that I enjoy than it is to demean the effort of someone who has managed to write and publish a novel (which is more than I’ve done). So when I do write a review that focuses on my disappointment with a book, I try to do more than simply to trash the thing. I try to tease out a more general point about the source of that disappointment. And I’ve come to think that this matter of a novelist’s attitude toward his series character is significant. I like to see a writer take his or her hero seriously—but not *too* seriously.

      I can’t help but think of another writer who loved his protagonist far too much: S.S. Van Dine (Willard Huntington Wright). Are there two characters who differ more than Philo Vance and Spenser? Hardly. Yet, in my view, they share this quality basking too much in their creators’ doting attention. In the case of Vance, I find that the dense and often clever puzzles that Van Dine gives him to solve amply compensate for his bothersome traits. Parker, by contrast—at least in the few novels by him that I’ve read—never really tries to gin up a complex plot.

      • Cavershamragu

        March 22, 2013 at 10:25 AM

        I always think Lord Peter Winsey is one of the worst offenders in thsi regards, with Sayers’ adoration overwhelming the later books. With Van Dine the Vance character is too close to an idealised self protrait probably though there is lots of cleverness with the erudition, as you say. Never too bothered by the Spenser character but it’s been a long while since I read any (more recently I read some fo the Jesse Stone book though I prefer the TV version).

  3. Mike

    March 22, 2013 at 11:04 AM

    Exactly right, Sergio. Wimsey is the perfect example of a character who has kept me from enjoying the work of a writer whom I’m otherwise inclined to admire.

  4. Skywatcher

    March 23, 2013 at 4:26 AM

    I have read a few Spenser books, and enjoyed them, although I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan. The tone of voice is everything as regards the enjoyment of Spenser. The bits that people enjoy the most are, I suspect, the bits where he smart mouths people,or else shows that he isn’t to be messed with. The plot is almost incidental.

    I have never been able to finish BUSMAN’S HONEYMOON, although I don’t really have a problem with the rest. How close to one’s series character is too close? If you’re going to have to live with your detective over several books, it probably helps to like them a little bit. Wimsey is treated far too gushingly in the last novel, but he is handled far better in stuff like MURDER MUST ADVERTISE where we see him for most of the book from the point of view of other people. It probably does help to have a certain distance: Conan Doyle (via Watson) is always pointing out Holmes’ failings, whilst the detective responds by complaining to his creator (via Watson) about how badly he is being written.

    • Mike

      March 23, 2013 at 1:46 PM

      “How close to one’s series character is too close?” As you say, Skywatcher, that is the core issue here. There’s a fine, or reasonably fine, balance to be struck. I don’t like it when writers treat their detective protagonist as a bumbling idiot, either. Again: Take the hero seriously, but not too seriously. Your point Holmes and Watson is very apt, and you’re right on the money when you note that point of view matters a lot. Sam Spade is arguably a creature of authorial wish fulfillment, too, but Hammett was shrewd enough to open up a bit of distance from his idealized hero by using a rigorously neutral third-person POV to tell the story of “The Maltese Falcon.”

  5. Barry Ergang

    March 30, 2013 at 8:26 AM

    I haven’t read a Spenser novel in many years. I gave up on Parker completely after the first dozen or so in the series, once remarking in a review of Chandler’s THE LONG GOODBYE that Spenser strikes me as “a Marlowe wannabe with a New England pallor.” I found Parker’s attempts at wisecracking humor to frequently sound forced and thus unfunny, and Spenser’s character to frequently be puerile.

    If I’m recalling correctly (I got rid of the Parker books years ago so I can’t check this), there’s a scene in LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE that illustrates my point. Reminiscent of scenes in countless old B-westerns, a diner in a restaurant where Spenser and Rachel go for a meal gets mouthy. Like the cowboy who tells the bad guy to “leave the little lady alone,” Spenser gets into it with this diner. The scene was wholly unnecessary except to show readers how tough and “chivalrous” a guy Spenser is. It mainly showed him to be childish.

    • Mike

      March 30, 2013 at 8:54 AM

      Barry: Thanks very much for your comment—and for affirming my basic take on the Spenser books. I read this book (“Rachel Wallace”) quite a few years ago, so I don’t recall individual scenes, but the one that you describe sounds about right, and it certainly captures what puts me off about Spenser. He does indeed function as an Old West hero, and not the most interesting kind of Old West hero, either. Your reference to Chandler is particularly apt. In Chandler’s novels, Marlowe is a smart-alecky would-be knight-errant, yet he acts that part in a subtly modulated and often ironic way. The drama, and the wry humor, often unfold at Marlowe’s expense. With Spenser, the “chivalry” thing is just overdone; it has a “protest too much” feel to it.

      • Barry Ergang

        March 30, 2013 at 9:14 AM

        Another thing Spenser does repeatedly is talk about adhering to his personal code. As Chandler wrote in “The Simple Art of Murder” about the detective-hero: “He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor–by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it.”

        Spenser’s code also seems hypocritical to me. There are certain things he won’t do personally because they’re immoral and/or criminal–but he has no hesitation about asking Hawk to do them, thus making him (though it never seems to bother him or his code) an accessory before and after the fact. Critics like to point out that Hawk represents Spenser’s “dark side,” which strikes me as a little pretentious. Then again, I’ve never understood why critics rave so about Parker as though he’s advanced the hardboiled school the way Ross Macdonald did after Chandler, who in turn expanded on what Hammett did. Parker was, in my estimation for what that’s worth, wholly derivative and unoriginal. Parker himself was pretentious. I once read an interview with him in which he said that when he decided to start writing novels, he knew he couldn’t write THE SOUND AND THE FURY but that he could write THE BIG SLEEP. Sorry, Bobby, you never came close.

  6. Ron Smyth

    September 21, 2018 at 1:33 PM

    I’m quite a fan of the Spenser books but to me the plot, the mystery portion of the book is usually of lesser importance. They aren’t who-dun-its.The books (at least the early ones) were at least as much about how to be a man at a time when male and female roles were under drastic revision. That is, how to be a man without being either a macho asshole or a total wimp. The Seventies were no longer the era of “Father Knows Best” but neither were they widely accepting of gender equality etc. and it is not surprising that the social attitudes of that day grate somewhat on today’s sensibilities.

    • Mike

      September 21, 2018 at 5:33 PM

      Great comment, Ron. I appreciate it. The observation that Parker (via Spenser) was testing and updating a certain ideal of “how to be a man”—and doing so at a pivotal moment—is on point.


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