Friday, January 18, 2013

The Good, The Bad, and Robert B. Parker

Thanks to discussion on Spenser's Sneakers, I've finally hit on why I object to Spenser's calling killers for backup. Not that it reflects badly on Spenser—he has never asked anyone to kill because he couldn't do it himself—but it lets Parker skirt serious moral dilemmas.

In MORTAL STAKES (1975), which directly precedes Hawk's debut in PROMISED LAND, Parker has Spenser make the tough decision to commit premeditated murder. It's possible Parker thought, "I can't have him go that dark again. Let me bring back Hawk to help with the terrorists in THE JUDAS GOAT."

Spenser remains committed to good. "Good", to him, isn't necessarily the cops or the courts, but more a streetwise sense of what's right. He respects Hawk and various ersatz Hawks because he sees some good in them. They all keep their word. Their use of violence is well controlled. If they're killing bad guys to protect the main good guy, they're on the side of the angels. If they ever killed randomly while working for Spenser, as they say on Firefly, that would be an interesting day. But Spenser calls them precisely because they don't kill indiscriminately. He couldn't continually call cops for backup; they might not have the free time or the jurisdiction to kill if it were necessary.

Parker evidently became so comfortable with the trope of deadly friends watching a hero's back, he carried it over to his Sunny Randall female P.I. series, turning Spike—a smartass waiter played by his son Dan in the Lifetime Spenser movies—into Sunny's karate master friend.


Kevin Burton Smith said...

But does Spenser really skirt moral issues? It seems to me plenty of those endless discussions with Susan, Hawk, Quirk, etc., revolve specifically around how he tries to justify what he's done. The entire series can, in fact, be seen as one long exploration on what is "right." The best of the books have always revolved around ethical and moral dilemmas, and only tangentially around what is legally "right."

And there are other reasons Spenser created Hawk -- it allowed him a platform to discuss racial, social and cultural issues, as well as pay tribute to long-standing notions about "the dangerous outsiders" that have permeated American literature and mythology from pretty much the start. It's no coincidence that later Hawk-substitutes were gay, Hispanic and Native American. Tonto would understand.

I do agree, though, that Parker may have been too successful in creating this trope, or at least in making it look too easy: those who followed his lead are legion, including such now-acclaimed writers as Mosley, Crais, Lehane, Coben and Child (who pretty much blended Spenser and Hawk together and built up Jack Reacher from there). And while these authors effectively expanded upon and reacted to Parker's original concept in their own way, there are far too many lesser writers who have plugged in a Hawk-like figure (the more colourful the better) without any understanding of why Parker created him in the first place, simply because they think that's what the genre expects now.

Much as many of them feel obliged to make their detectives wise asses without any real understanding of why (or even how) Chandler pulled it off.

Gerald So said...

Hawk and the others who back Spenser up from time to time are more than Get-Out-of-Moral-Dilemma-Free cards, you're right. But Spenser can ponder consequences all he wants; if Hawk eventually eliminates what's causing the dilemma, Spenser doesn't have to face the worst-case scenario.

If Spenser didn't have killer backup, different story. He would have to make the hardest choices, as he did in MORTAL STAKES.