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he whole point is that the detective exists complete and entire and unchanged by anything that happens, that he is, as detective, outside the story and above it, and always will be. That is why he never gets the girl, never marries, never really has any private life, except insofar as he must eat and sleep and have a place to leave his clothes.
-Raymond Chandler

Perhaps no other writer has had so pernicious an influence on modern detective fiction as Robert B. Parker.  Paradoxically, having immersed himself in the writings of the genre while he was an academic, Parker proceeded to violate the conventions which made it great when he became an author.  Now, I'm not saying that a writer has to slavishly follow the conventions of the genre, but if he's going to violate them, it should be for reasons that add something to his text.  I believe that Parker, and his successors, have instead produced inferior work.

The most important convention of the genre that Parker has tampered with is, "the hero as loner".  Bad enough that Spenser has his ongoing relationship with the profoundly annoying Susan Silverman (supposedly their relationship is modeled on Parker's with his own wife; God help him), he also has a virtual child in Paul and his relationships with Hawk, Belsen, Quirk, etc. are so close, that people who hire Spenser, essentially get a whole team.

One result is that Spenser ends up maintaining an emotional distance from his cases, at a couple points he has even told clients that he would protect Susan before them.  Compare this with the quintessential private eye series, Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels.  Archer was continually getting over involved with clients, their wives & children, as each case became the emotional focus of his otherwise empty life.  This emotional vulnerability is a key element of the best novels of the genre.

Likewise, Parker has eliminated the physical and legal risks that the hero faces.  Spenser's friends are all so powerful that there's never a sense that Spenser is vulnerable.  Of course, we know that he won't ever lose a fist fight or be beaten up. But we, and his opponents, also know that even if he gets in trouble, his cronies will bail him out--Hawk will shoot them, Quirk will arrest them or, at least,  not arrest Spenser & even the Mob will come after them.

The result of this genre busting is that the Spenser tales are largely devoid of dramatic tension.  His emotional distance from cases and physical invulnerability have combined to make for stories that are rather flat and formulaic; an ironic result considering the attempt to escape the classic p.i. formula.

A Savage Place demonstrates all of these points by removing Spenser from his familiar background and transplanting him to Southern California.  Candy Sloan is an ambitious TV reporter who has stumbled onto a story about union corruption in the movie industry.  When her life is threatened, the TV station hires Spenser to guard her.

With Susan back home in Boston, Spenser is free to focus on the case and become involved with Candy.  And, removed from the protection of Hawk and Quirk, he finds himself vulnerable to hoodlums and lawmen alike.  These factors combine to provide us with the most satisfactory entry in the long running Spenser series and provide a bittersweet peak at what this series could have been.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Robert Parker (2 books reviewed)
Private Eyes
Robert Parker Links:


Book-related and General Links:
    -Bullets and Beer: The Spenser Home Page
    -INTERVIEW: Spenser Turns 25 Robert Parker (
    -FIRST CHAPTER: Sudden Mischief (Robert B. Parker)
    -P.I.s, Dicks, and Mystery Men (Jesse Sublett, Weekly Wire)
    -Robert B. Parker and Raymond Chandler (from Shamus)
    -BIBLIO: Robert B. Parker
    -Robert B. Parker (Mostly Fiction)
    -ROBERT B. PARKER (Stop, You're Killing Me!)
    -Robert B. Parker's Complete Bookshelf  With Reviews and Reader Comments (Oxford Books)

    -African American Mystery Page
    -Black Street Fiction
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Dangerous Dames: A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes (Thrilling Detectives)
    -Edgar Award: Best First Novel
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
    -Gumshoe Site
    -Hardboiled : online reference site for all things noir
    -Hardboiled Heaven
    -Hard Boiled Noir Webring
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -Mysterious Home Page The Online Mystery Network
    -Mystery Net Awards Page
    -No Night Sweats
    -RARA-AVIS : mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled (and noir) fiction
    -The Reader's Corner presents  Female Sleuths
    -Thrilling Detective Website
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -Women of Mystery (Bookaholic)

If you like the Spenser series, try:

Chandler, Raymond
    -Trouble Is My Business
    -The Big Sleep
    -Farewell My Lovely
    -The Lady in the Lake
    -The High Window
    -The Little Sister

Crais, Robert
    -The Monkey's Raincoat
    -Stalking the Angel
    -Lullaby Town
    -Free Fall
    -Sunset Express
    -Voodoo River
    -Indigo Slam

Estleman, Loren
(Amos Walker series)
    -Motor City Blue
    -Angel Eyes
    -The Glass Highway
    -Lady Yesterday
    -Midnight Man
    -Every Brilliant Eye
    -Sweet Women Lie

Greenleaf, Stephen
(John Marshall Tanner Series)
    -Grave Error
    -Death Bed
    -State's Evidence
    -Fatal Obsession
    -Beyond Blame
    -Toll Call

Hammett, Dashiell
    -The Continental Op
    -The Maltese Falcon    (Read Orrin's review, Grade: A+)
    -The Thin Man
    -The Glass Key

Healy, Jeremiah
(John Francis Cuddy Series)
    -Blunt Darts
    -The Staked Goat
    -So Like Sleep
    -Swan Dive
    -Yesterday's News

Lyons, Arthur
(Jacob Asch mysteries)
    -Hard Trade
    -The Killing Floor (1976)
    -Castles Burning
    -Other People's Money

MacDonald, Ross
(Lew Archer Mysteries)
    -Black Money
    -The Chill
    -The Drowning Pool
    -The Far Side of the Dollar
    -The Galton Case         (Read Orrin's review, Grade: A+)
    -The Moving Target
    -The Underground Man
    -The Wycherly Woman
    -The Zebra-Striped Hearse
    -Sleeping Beauty

Martin, James E.
(Gil Disbro Series)
    -The Mercy Trap
    -The Flip Side of Life
    -And Then You Die
    -A Fine and Private Place

Valin Jonathan
(Harry Stoner Mysteries)
    -The Lime Pit
    -Dead Letter
    -Final Notice
    -Day of Wrath     (read Orrin's review, Grade: A)
    -Life's Work
    -Fire Lake
    -Extenuating Circumstances
    -The Music Lovers
    -Natural Causes
    -Second Chance