A Study of Good and Evil
in the Fiction of Robert B. Parker
Although detective stories use surprise and suspense,
their success actually relies on meeting a reader's expectations:
all mysteries can be solved; order can come out of chaos; good
can conquer evil. Hard-boiled mystery writers cloud these conventions
by placing them in a polluted society. In Richard Slotkin's words,
this allows the reader "to play imaginatively at being both
policeman and outlaw." (Slotkin, 100).
In his essay, "The Simple Art of Murder,"
gives the hard-boiled novel the following setting:
A world where a judge with a cellar full of
bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his
pocket. Where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder
as a means of money making. Where no man can walk down the street
in safety because law and order are things we talk about but
refrain from practicing. It is not a fragrant world, but it is
the world you live in.
While traditional fiction escapes human limitations,
the hard-boiled novel exposes them. When the masks of good and
evil are pulled away, the men behind them look very much alike.
Robert B. Parker follows
this premise to create his similar yet opposing characters, Spenser and Hawk.
Through them, one is allowed to play Slotkin's dual role.
The hard-boiled style identifies closely with the
human condition, imposing several limits on the reader. The most
basic limit is setting. Seeming to confine its characters to
a bleak atmosphere, Chandler's setting actually makes the hard-boiled
fantasy all the more real.
To further engage in this fantasy, many writers
draw on personal experience to create their detective heroes.
In his profile of Robert B. Parker, David Geherin writes:
One learns not surprisingly that Parker, like
Spenser, is a gourmet cook; that he is a large and powerfully
built man who enjoys jogging and weight-lifting; that he frequently
quotes poetry and has a quick and irreverent wit; that he has
little patience with pretentiousness; that he is sensitive, capable
of responding emotionally despite the outwardly stalwart image
Parker's Spenser distinguishes himself from the
genius detectives of the past, saying that linear thinkers "want
to know why and how come and what the source of a problem is
and how to work out a solution to it." By contrast, he says,
"A lot of what I do is a gut reaction." (Promised
In Chandler's world of social decay, a detective
cannot solve problems with pure, rational thought. His own thoughts
and feelings are products of this setting. First-person voice
limits the reader to Spenser's perception of events and people
while allowing intimate knowledge of his inner workings.
Unable to rely solely on powers of reason, the
detective is forced to train himself physically. At six-one,
one hundred ninety-five pounds, Spenser has been a state cop,
a soldier, and a boxer. Currently, he calls himself a "professional
thug." (Promised, 58).
A changing environment changes the face of crime.
Modern crime is more than a series of mind games and mysterious
thefts. To stay effective, a hero must adapt to his opponent's
tactics. The new sleuth must be ready to meet murderers one on
one. The professional thug is seen as the only man who can move
freely through a hard-boiled setting.
Spenser's self-description may be flippant, but
it raises a serious concern. In looking the part of a villain,
the hero can easily slip into this role. Spenser's only protection
against total decay is a code of behavior. Despite its human
limitations, the hard-boiled mystery remains fiction. Parker
must somehow meet reader expectations. Spenser's code allows
him to do this.
Spenser explains to Susan Silverman "...all I have is how I act. It's the only system I fit into. Whatever the hell I am is based in part on not doing things I don't think I should do. Or don't want to do." (Mortal Stakes,
Raised by his carpenter father and uncles, Spenser's
code is the product of an honest, working background. A man's
actions define him. Spenser earns his hero status by acting with
honor; he loses it by acting dishonorably. Spenser's creator
believes in the same code. (Geherin, 8)
Even with its simple, solid foundation, the code
does not subvert Spenser's weaknesses altogether. Parker keeps
the final outcome in doubt. The code operates on what Spenser
thinks he should do; however, being human, Spenser's reason is
not always at its best. Society colors his thoughts. His gut
reactions sometimes ignore proper thinking. In fact, Spenser's
explanation from Mortal Stakes comes after he has ambushed
and killed two men to stop a blackmail scheme.
Spenser also describes his code as "jock ethic."
(324) Fair play really matters to him. He may have won the day,
but his victory is tainted because he "cheated." Thanks
to first-person voice, the reader is caught in Spenser's moral
dilemma. Like the listening Susan, one may have his own opinion
on the justice of Spenser's actions. After all, on one level,
the ending lives up to expectations: the hero kills the villains.
At the same time, one cannot separate himself from Spenser's
remorse over the ambush and his use of deadly force.
In Promised Land, the novel directly following
Mortal Stakes, Parker introduces Hawk. As Spenser's dark
counterpart both metaphorically and physically, Hawk is a stiffer
test for the code than any situation the writer can imagine.
In his first appearance Hawk is working for King Powers, a well-known
crime boss. While Spenser tries to help people, Hawk is paid
to hurt them. Given Spenser's blackmail scenario, Hawk would
have no qualms ambushing the two men.
The reader may want to draw a distinct line between
the good and the bad; however, Parker does not let him do this.
As Hawk observes:
"Maybe he aiming to help. But he also like
the work. You know? I mean he could be a social worker if he
just want to help. I get nothing out of hurting people. Sometimes
just happens that way. Just don't be so sure me and old Spenser
are so damn different, Susan."
When Spenser's code fails in Mortal Stakes,
he turns to Susan. At the end of the book, he jokes about letting
her into his system. In Promised Land, she is indeed part
of his system. Spenser retreats from Hawk's analysis, assuring
Susan, "I don't beat people up for money. I don't kill people
for money. He does." (89)
As much as the reader wants to believe Spenser,
he must also empathize with Susan. Hawk's speech comes after
she has seen Spenser goad Hawk's henchman into a fight. In doing
this, he has again skirted the line between hero and thug.
One gains further insight into Parker's characters
by revisiting Chandler. Having established the hardboiled setting,
Chandler describes the man fit to survive it:
He will take no man's money dishonestly, and
no man's insolence without due and dispassionate revenge. He
is a lonely man, and his pride is that you will treat him as
a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.
Here Chandler is discussing the detective hero,
but Parker applies this description to both Spenser and Hawk.
Hawk believes Spenser's code complicates life.
He often makes fun of Spenser for being a "straight-ahead
man." (82) Thus, one may be surprised to learn that Hawk
has his own sense of honor, and that the evidence for this comes
Other characters fear Hawk and--by Spenser's own
account--the reader should fear him as well. Still, Spenser is
just as quick to defend Hawk, saying Hawk "won't say yes
and do no." (152) This is another example of how
an author's chosen viewpoint can cloud morality. As first-person
narrator, Spenser has gained the reader's trust. Now, over the
opposition of several characters, the reader is inclined to believe
Spenser's respectful assessment of Hawk.
Spenser's faith in Hawk is another manifestation
of his code. It is tested by every insult against Hawk, by Susan's
questions, and finally by Spenser's own doubts. Faith motivates
Spenser to keep Hawk out of a police sting.
Promised Land ends with a confrontation
between Hawk and Spenser. The code has apparently backfired again.
King Powers orders Spenser killed, calling Hawk a "nigger"
in the process. Hawk refuses the order, instead forcing Powers
to fight Spenser hand to hand. As one might expect, Spenser wins.
Susan asks Hawk to explain his sudden mutiny, and he responds:
"Me and your old man there are a lot alike.
I told you that already. There ain't all that many of us left,
guys like old Spenser and me. He was gone there'd be one less.
I'd have missed him. And I owed him one from this morning."
In this response, Parker has managed to uphold
the code and satisfy the reader's expectations.
Spenser and Hawk's current relationship draws on their common
past as boxers. It is based on mutual respect. Each may not like
the other's chosen profession, but both men know they are good
at what they do. Hawk is indeed a proud man and--because Spenser
maintains his respect--they do not fight.
Both Spenser and Hawk are in the business of "crime,"
and both have codes of behavior, so just how are they different?
Parker's use of first-person limited voice helps answer this
question. While first-person restricts the author to one perspective,
it allows him to explore that perspective completely:
Driving back to Boston, I thought about my two
retainers in the same week. Maybe I'd buy a yacht. On the other
hand maybe it would be better to get the tear in my convertible
roof fixed. The tape leaked.
(The Godwulf Manuscript, 61)
Chandler may have portrayed Marlowe as a solitary, driven figure,
but Parker shows Spenser to be a man of his time with everyday
Spenser also has an active social life. The reader
not only gets to see Susan as professional good listener, but
also in private as Spenser's lover. In Ceremony, the eighth
book in the series, Spenser goes so far as to say "[Hawk]
and I are part of the same cold place. You aren't. You're the
source of warmth. Hawk has none. You're what makes me different
from Hawk." (127)
With Spenser's declaration above, Susan becomes
another important test for the code. Parker puts their relationship
in doubt with the next book. Spenser has loved Susan intensely
through eight books before the hint of trouble in The Widening
Gyre. The couple actually separates in Valediction,
and the impact on Spenser shows during a fight with gang members.
Spenser describes the fight as "force expanding
in a kind of ecstasy, a frenzied release." In his depressed
state, physical violence is more tempting. He is beginning to
enjoy violence. Parker saves him by showing his building regret.
"It was over too soon," Spenser says. "A shame
in a way to waste the energy." He closes the scene by observing
that "The Incredible Hulk doesn't have a girlfriend either."
The reader, of course, wants Spenser and Susan
to reunite. He knows they belong together. Having clouded these
expectations over three books, Parker finally fulfills them in
A Catskill Eagle. Spenser literally rescues Susan from
her overprotective lover. The staging of Spenser's drama shows
the light and dark sides of his code. Spenser's intense love
drives Susan away. That same intense love, in a different light,
brings her back.
Using first-person limited to show Spenser's many
dimensions, Parker gives the reader ample opportunity to identify
with him. By contrast, one cannot identify very well with Hawk.
The reader can only see what Spenser sees. As close as they are,
Spenser has never been able to read Hawk the way he reads other
In fact, in all the time I'd known Hawk I'd
never seen him show a sign of anything. He laughed easily and
he was never off balance. But whatever went on inside stayed
inside. Or maybe nothing went on inside. Hawk was as impassive
and hard as an obsidian carving. Maybe that was what went on
inside. (The Judas Goat, 89-90)
Hawk is a creature of control, not allowing anyone to see his
real self. The reader can respect Hawk the way Spenser does,
but he cannot know him as well as he knows Spenser.
To illustrate this point, Parker pits Hawk against
love in Double Deuce. While he and Spenser probe a gangland murder, Hawk becomes involved with Jackie Raines. Jackie is a television producer doing a series on gangs. Hawk has known her for most of his life, and she shows a genuine interest in him.
To set up a showdown with Hawk, the Double Deuce gang kidnaps Jackie. The gang leader tries to use her to make Hawk kowtow to him. Instead, Hawk neutralizes the gang member guarding
Jackie with an incredibly accurate shot. Jackie is shocked that
Hawk remains so cold with her life in the balance. This shock
leads her to leave him.
When Spenser asks Hawk whether he loved Jackie,
he answers, "It never seemed a good idea to believe in [love].
. .. Always seemed easier to me to stay intact if you didn't."
Hawk admits he has paid "a big price" to survive the
mean streets. (220)
The real difference between Spenser and Hawk is
revealed in comparing their codes. Spenser's code keeps him human.
It sustains his relationship with Susan through a long trial.
Conversely, Hawk's code makes him a deadly weapon by depriving
him of love or any visible emotion at all.
Parker shows detective and enforcer as products
of the same society. They look the same physically and, at first
glance, either role is tempting to the reader. With a closer
look, one can see Parker's style tilting light on Spenser while
leaving Hawk in the dark.
When Parker offers the choice to play either character,
readers lean toward the hero. Spenser is well rounded, and more
of his motivation is seen in the text. With a skillfully subtle
touch, Parker meets expectations in both individual stories and
the larger picture. Mysteries are solved. Order is made from
chaos. Good triumphs over evil.
Geherin, David. "Robert
B. Parker." Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel
in the 70s. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980. 5-82.
Parker, Robert, B.
The Godwulf Manuscript. 1973. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. God Save the Child. 1974. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. Mortal Stakes. 1975. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. Promised Land. 1976. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. The Judas Goat. 1978. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. Ceremony. 1982. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. The Widening Gyre. 1983. New York: Dell, 1987.
---. Valediction. 1984. New York: Dell, 1988.
---. A Catskill Eagle. 1985. New York: Dell, 1988.
---. Double Deuce. 1992. New York: Berkley, 1993.
"The Hard-Boiled Detective Story: From the Open Range to
the Mean Streets." The Sleuth and the Scholar: Origins,
Evolution, and Current Trends in Detective Fiction. Ed. Barbara
A. Rader and Howard G. Zettler. New York: Greenwood Press, c.
Essay respectfully submitted by Gerald
So, October 2002.
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