Monday, May 13, 2013

A Farewell to Spenser

Posted by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

Forty years ago, in The Godwulf Manuscript, Robert B. Parker introduced his first and most popular protagonist, Spenser, a tough, witty Boston P.I. Sixkill is the fortieth and last entry in the series (at least the last written by Parker himself), and the series, like its lead character, has had its ups and downs.

The early books were terrific. Spenser was a very engaging character and his early cases were often complex and thought-provoking in addition to being a helluva lot of fun. Later, though, Parker began to coast and wrote a number of books that did not live up to the promise of the early novels and that were often little more than an excuse for Spenser and his sidekicks to exchange snappy dialogue for three hundred pages or so.

In particular, the series seemed to wander off the track when Spenser, who had enjoyed relationships with a number of women in the early books, settled down into a monogamous relationship with Susan Silverman, a Harvard-educated psychologist. Increasingly, the relationship between Spenser and Susan became as much of a focal point of the books as the crime or other mystery that Spenser was investigating at the time. And, to be honest, reading about the two of them became extremely tiresome in a pretty big hurry.

As someone who has read the entire series, I really would have hoped that Parker’s Spenser would go out on a high note, in a book that recalled the glory days of the series. Sadly, though, Sixkill is not such a book. In fairness to Parker, though, I assume that he did not expect to die suddenly at his desk without having the opportunity to give Spenser a proper sendoff.

That is not to say that Sixkill is a bad book. Like most of the later entries in the series, it’s a fun read, and certainly a quick one. Spenser’s long-time sidekick, Hawk, is traveling somewhere in Asia and so, unfortunately, is MIA for this last book. Unhappily, Susan Silverman is not traveling in Asia or anywhere else, and so a fair amount of the book consists of Spenser and Susan having world-class sex and telling each other how wonderful they are. (This, in spite of the fact that Spenser is a veteran of the Korean War, which would mean that he’s pushing eighty by the time he gets to this adventure.)

The case itself is patterned after the scandalous 1921 murder trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. At the time, Arbuckle was a huge Hollywood sensation, and in this case, the term refers both to his popularity and to his size. “Fatty,” as one might gather, was not a small man. The victim, a young starlet, died after partying with Arbuckle and others over several days in a San Francisco hotel room. Though there was little evidence to support the charge, the more sensational newspaper accounts insisted that Arbuckle had raped the woman and, in the process of doing so, had squashed her. In the end, Arbuckle was tried and acquitted, but his reputation was ruined.

In Sixkill, a huge movie star named Jumbo Nelson (again, “huge” in both senses of the word), invites a young woman names Dawn Lopata up to his hotel room. She dies there after having sex with Jumbo. Though the evidence is far from clear, many in the media insist that Nelson, a particularly unappealing character in person, is guilty of murder and should be tried and put away.

Such an outcome would be very bad, both for Jumbo and for the studio and others who have a great deal riding on his career. They would not like to see him prosecuted. Captain Martin Quirk of the Boston P.D. is in charge of the case and isn’t sure that the evidence supports arresting Jumbo. But the public is demanding Nelson’s head on a platter and Quirk apparently feels that he’s not in a position to stand in front of the oncoming train. He’d prefer that Spenser do so. (One might think that the job of the Police Department in this or any other case, would be to pursue justice irrespective of what the larger public might want. But if that were the case, there would be no book, so never mind.)

Spenser takes the case and, as is his habit, he will pursue it to the end, no matter where it takes him and no matter the danger. The real fun of the book lies in the character of Zebulon Sixkill, a Cree Indian who, when the book opens, is serving as Jumbo Nelson’s bodyguard. Sixkill is a behemoth and, naturally, has never been bested by any mortal man. When Spenser annoys Jumbo, Jumbo orders Sixkill to get rid of Spenser. As any reader would expect, Spenser, of course, mops up the floor with Sixkill.

Jumbo fires Sixkill for this gross incompetence and Spenser takes him on as a substitute Hawk, teaching him the ways of the world. The character is one of Parker’s best inventions, smart and funny and a joy to watch in action. It would have been nice to see him appear in later books.

Unhappily, that won’t be the case, at least not for this reader. And as much as I have enjoyed this series through the years, it’s really sad to imagine that there will never again be a fresh Spenser adventure. Susan Silverman, I can happily do without. But Spenser, Hawk, Rita Fiore, Belson, Quirk and all the other characters who have populated these books have become part of my crime fiction universe and I will sorely miss them. The Parker Estate has commissioned Ace Atkins to continue the series, and while I greatly admire Atkins’ own books, I have never liked the idea of another author taking over a series that I really enjoyed once the original writer has gone to Crime Fiction Heaven. So in the future, I will content myself with re-reading the best books of this series and for me, that will suffice.

R.I.P., Mr. Parker, and thanks for all the great books.

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