Monday, April 26, 2010

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert B. Parker

Title: Looking for Rachel Wallace
Author: Robert B. Parker
Publisher: Dell (1980)

I mentioned the inevitability before so now it's time to share my post-reading thoughts. The cover tells me this is a Spenser novel but it's the first one I've read, first Parker I've read, actually. A little visit to the author's website gave me the impression that he had (and probably still has even after his death) quite the fan base. Any Parker fans out there want to tell me which title I should go for next? Start with Spenser from the beginning? Anyway, on to this title...

Rachel Wallace is many things I am not. This is completely irrelevant but it amuses me to say it. Rachel Wallace (and yes, she is referred to by her full name quite often) is an outspoken feminist and lesbian with a new book about to be published. The book makes certain accusations and names names. She's not very popular with certain crowds to begin with and the content of her upcoming release has resulted in death threats. Her publisher hires Spenser to protect her. Her code of behavior is distinctly different from his resulting in several very interesting conversations and a falling out that sets the scene in Looking for Rachel Wallace.

The book is not long with very nice pacing so I got through it really quickly. The writing is good, the dialogue a lot of fun, and the story satisfying. I liked it well enough that I'll seek out some other Spenser novels but it didn't necessarily blow me away or anything. Just a nice, solid read. Two things really stuck with me: the dynamic between Spenser and Rachel Wallace and that I wish I was more familiar with this genre of books. I'll start with the first.

I can't know this for sure since it's the only Spenser novel I've read but Rachel Wallace felt very much like a foil for Spenser. Maybe Spenser gets one of these in every book but she was practically everything he was not so the reader is presented with the perfect set-up for getting to know a lot about Spenser (and his lovely girlfriend actually). Do we get this in every book or was it time for some character advancement? Normally I wouldn't think about this very much but since Looking for Rachel Wallace is about the 7th book in the series and the differences were almost comically large the deliberate foil idea stuck with me. Of course, Spenser's got a pretty good sense of humor and Rachel Wallace absolutely none so a lot of the time I think Spenser's just fucking with her. What makes their differences most interesting is what they do have in common. They are both intelligent, caring, fair-minded, and very sure of how they have chosen to live their lives. It's the intersection of their life choices that makes for the cool conversations between them.

On to the second. This is the third private eye/mystery author I've read lately (and I think the last time I attempted the genre was in the 90s) and they all feel a lot alike. That's not to say I'm not enjoying them I just didn't expect that they would all be so alike. I checked the copyrights and most of what I have read was published in the 80s so it might be that there was a particular style that was super successful in the 80s and it happens to be what I've picked up. The next author in my getting-know-the-genre project is Walter Mosley. The book I'm starting with was published in 2001 but it's set in the 50s. Like the others I've read it's in the first person POV. I rather like to think the ones I've read are in the "first person glib" (this Rachel Wallace has a sense of humor:) because the narrators have all had the same attitude even. They all seem slightly more progressive than those around them, tough but prone to sadness, cynical because of what they see but still pretty keen on humanity, never lacking for chances to score but very sensitive with their partners (this goes for both male and female protags so don't go thinking this is one of those male-only tropes), pretty set in their code of ethics but philosophical enough to entertain other ideas... So help me out here, mystery readers, is this the way it goes? Are they all in first person POV? Have I described the archetype or simply a style-type? Will I be running into some other types or shall I learn to love and embrace this one because any other type is rare? Also, I think I like a good shoot-out as much as the next American but is justice only ever meted out with death in these books? There are some antagonists who I think would have been much more miserable in jail and yet they all die. No hassle or expense with court in these books; much easier to just kill the baddies and complain a bit about the paperwork.

Getting back to Spenser, he very much aligned with the archetype I described above. Course, not being familiar with his series or the genre in general maybe he was the beginning of this. Maybe he was a step forward in the evolution of the archetype. I really don't know. I liked him just fine and won't mind reading some more books with him but I wonder how deeply I'll be able to get into the genre if I always run into the same protags.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

I still have a list of suggestions I'm working through for the genre but if any mystery readers want to add to that list I would really appreciate it. I'd especially love some books that turn all my first impressions/stereotypes right on their heads!


  1. thanks for the rec over at Beth's.

    I think I've read all of Parker's Spenser books and hated nearly every one of the later ones. I know, I know--I didn't have to read the damn things so it's my own fault.

    I'd read the early ones, The Godwulf one, and leaf through any others to see if there's too many Susan Silverman passages or jokey schticks about Spenser's fabulous tolerance of the gay or the black.

    Mysteries: I love Sarah Caudwell (though her purposefully obnoxious Hilary character can be grating to some readers)

    I used to read nothing but mysteries, so I should be able to come up with other titles/authors, but I can't at the moment.

    Oh, I just read some Joseph Finder and he's always got the archetype of tough, quiet guys but they're not over-the-top alpha and the plots are interesting.

  2. Yeah, traditional Private Eye novels are mostly in the first person, though one of the most famous, Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, is in third. This is primarily because the style of PI novels was set by one guy back in the 1930s-40s, Raymond Chandler. Pretty much all PI novels that have followed owe their style to Chandler. Chandler's detective, Phillip Marlowe is the prototype for the glib, laconic first person narrator who's seen it all. Chandler's best known follower was probably Ross MacDonald who became a huge influence on modern writers like Sue Grafton and Lawrence Block. If you want to backtrack the genre a little, I recommend Chandler's The Long Goodbye. To me that's his best book.
    To answer your question though, yes you'll run into the same sort of thing over and over. I've read somewhere in the area of 600 private eye novels, so I know what I'm talking about. There are some books that go their own way, but most readers of PI books seem to like their stuff in the Chandler mode.
    As far as Spenser goes, you'll find that most of them do have a passage or two where Spenser and Susan try and figure Spenser out. That's one of Parker's personal tropes and it even shows up in his Westerns. He's very interested in why people do the things that they do. Particularly men of violence. There's a very telling scene in Parker's Western, Appaloosa where one of the 'heroes' basically beats up an innocent bystander just because he's pissed off. His friend tries to explain that the man has to be a certain type to do the things he does and sometimes he's going to be that way when you don't want him to.
    Anyway, Parker has been a huge influence on the PI genre, making the hero or heroine a bit more human. Hope that helps.

  3. Charles you think Parker did that humanizing thing with Spenser? Interesting. He definitely subtracted the "lone" from the lone wolf thing.

  4. Kate, yeah I think Parker carried the PI a long way toward a more human character. Marlowe had some of it. Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer always seemed more of an observer than a participant in his cases. Spenser, though quite the macho tough guy did show his emotions quite a bit. He even cries at the end of Looking for Rachel Wallace. Early Autumn remains my favorite Spenser I think. That one has a lot of heart.
    The two guys who followed closest on Parker's heels, Robert L. Simon and Andrew Bergman (neither of whom I hear much from these days) carried it a bit further, especially Simon with Moses Wine. Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder is another great character with a lot of humanity. I think Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone was the first major female PI character, then Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton followed in her footsteps.
    What's kind of funny is that in many ways Anita Blake and her many clones also carry a lot of the wisecracking PI sensibility, and over in the fantasy section there's Steven Brust, Glen Cook. and Simon R. Green.

  5. Rachel, I'm a big fan of Spenser, but I think I can say that some of the books are much more interesting than others. There are quite a few in which Spenser is basically playing the white knight for a woman - although, to be fair, the women usually have a variety of reactions to him. Some are grateful, some are treacherous, one shoots him. Important early ones, I think, are God Save the Child (which introduces Susan), Mortal Stakes, Promised Land (which introduces Hawk), Early Autumn (this is especially good, and introduces Paul Giacomin, who constitutes Spenser's son equivalent), and A Savage Place. The relationship between Susan and Spenser is quite complex and well-developed. I love them for their dry humour and economical prose, but I'm not generally a fan of the genre. I would dispense with The Godwulf Manuscript at this stage, it's his first Spenser novel and doesn't built up nearly as good an introduction to Spenser as God Bless the Child, his second, in my opinion.

  6. I love being reminded how subjective reading tastes are. It makes the world a more complex, interesting place.

    Godwulf was my one of my favorites because of the lack of Susan. (Also because I think that's the one in which Parker compares Northeastern University buildings to the headquarters of White Castle Hamburger--dead accurate description)

    Hawk mellows through the series and I'm not sure that was a good thing. Sheena, what do you think of his changing personality?

    I bet other characters like Tiebop (sp) were brought in to be the new ruthless characters who could kill without remorse.

  7. Not familiar with these books at all, nor very well versed in the genre, but three mysterish books that really stood out for me recently were:

    Ariana Franklin, 'Mistress of the Art of Death' (beautifully written historical with great fish-out-of-water heroine)

    C.S.Harris, 'What Angels Fear' (Regency arisocrat with unusual genetic syndrome forced by desperation to turn sleuth)

    Lisa Lutz, the 'Spellman' series (very funny, in a black humor sort of way, family of private investigators)

    And of course there is the absolutely extraordinary Flavia de Luce of 'the Sweetness at the Bottom of the PIe' who defies all stereotypes and expectations

  8. Wow! I go to San Fran for a couple days and then I get to come home to a bunch of recommendations and information. Excellent! I also like how on one of these I'm going to have to go for the most convincing argument. :)

    Kate - Thanks for all the titles/authors; and for the one over at Beth's.

    Charles - It's your initial suggestions that I'm still working through (and enjoying) though I did find Mosley on my own browsing the library one day. Thanks for even more suggestions and I also really appreciate you including a bit about the genre framework and traditions.

    Sheena - Thanks for the specifics on your favorite Spenser novels. Looks like Early Autumn is a fave with you and Charles so maybe I should go with that one next.
    (Sheena is the name of one of my favorite video game characters! Is it ok that I think of you as an ass-kicking magic user who is smarter than everyone else in the party?)

    M - I love Mistress of the Art of Death! It's one of my favorite books. I haven't liked the rest of the series as much but I keep going back to Mistress over and over. And thanks for some more titles to look into. I think I remember you suggesting the Spellman series before and I haven't had a chance to check it out yet. I recall your review for the Flavia de Luce book - I have a really hard time with pre-teen and teen protags outside of video games and hardcore fantasy... do you think that'll trip me up or that the books are good enough to get me beyond that?

  9. Kate, I think I like the fleshing out of Hawke in the later novels- I really enjoyed both Double Deuce and Hush Money, which delved into his psyche a bit more. I felt that it sort of stopped after that, though, and the explanation he gave of Spenser's motivations and modus operandi in Potshot was spot on, but he seemed to repeat it in less detail a bit in the novels after that, and that wore a bit thin with me. I thought it was natural that as he got older he let developed a very thin layer of sentimentality with Spenser and Susan, so I guess to sum up my rambling reply to your excellent question - I was fine with it, but thought that the better work on it stopped around Widow's Walk or Bad Business.
    Rachel - that's a wonderful way to think of me, especially as I am a very short and fairly conventional librarian! Please do continue to think of me like that!