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THE PROBLEM OF THE PERFECT PROTAGONIST: A Review of Robert B. Parker's Widow's Walk: A Spenser Novel


By SAM WILLIAMSON


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Friday, May 17, 2002

Among this month's FindLaw book reviews, there's the usual heavyweight fare: Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography by James St. Clair & Linda Gugin, How Democratic Is The American Constitution? by Robert Alan Dahl, Fighting Injustice by Michael Tigar, and The Rehnquist Court: A Retrospective by Martin Belsky. Somehow, however, another book has slipped in. It's Widow's Walk: A Spenser Novel, by Robert B. Parker.

Surely there's an explanation. Perhaps Findlaw.com has decided to start a summer beach reading column (though the diehards among you may think that this function is satisfied by Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson of Kentucky: A Political Biography)? Or perhaps, you might speculate, this is somehow a commemoration of Robert Urich's death last month. That, however, is not the case.

Even in comparison to the other fascinating fare selected for this month, Widow's Walk warrants reviewing because it signifies a tragic yet altogether expected event: Spenser has totally, completely, and irrevocably jumped the shark.

For those of you unfamiliar with the phenomenon of "jumping the shark," check out www.jumptheshark.com. Basically, this term refers to the "Happy Days" episode where Fonzie jumps a shark on waterskis, thereby demonstrating that the show was doomed. When something "jumps the shark" it means that something has happened in the storyline that deals the series a blow from which it cannot recover.

In this case, Spenser has jumped the shark because this is the first book where Parker totally mails it in. As far as I can tell, he makes absolutely no effort to add anything new to the book: there are no new storylines, no new character developments, no new plot twists - nothing. More to the point, there is absolutely nothing interesting about this book.

Worse Than An In-Flight Magazine

Consider this: I got this book for free (thanks to FindLaw), I read it in less than three hours (and gave it a fairly thorough reading at that), and I did so during a flight to Chicago (that is, during a time when I had nothing better to do). Even with all that, it still wasn't worth it. The golf column in the in-flight magazine would have been better.

Why the venom?, you might ask. The problem is that somewhere along the line, Parker decided that Spenser had to be the "perfect man." Tom Clancy made the same decision with Jack Ryan, thereby dooming his books as well. In my opinion, Clancy's error happened earlier, somewhere around Patriot Games. Now Parker adopts the same suicidal writerly strategy.

The Problem of the Perfect Protagonist

All this has long changed, however, and Spenser's inexorable movement towards perfection began before Widow' s Walk - probably in the book Double Deuce, where Spenser and his sidekick Hawk singlehandedly clean up a blighted public housing project. (Not to be confused with Potshot, where Spenser and his sidekick Hawk singlehandedly clean up a blighted western town.) At any rate, at some point, Spenser stopped making mistakes, stopped doing unusual or unexpected things, stopped losing, and stopped being interesting.

But what about all the off-color comments he makes?, you might object. What about the jokes he makes with Hawk about Hawk's being black, or with his gay friends about their homosexuality? A perfect person wouldn't do that, would he?

Actually, these comments are part of the problem: Parker puts them in as further evidence of Spenser's "perfectness." Hawk, and Spenser's various gay friends, wouldn't allow him to make these comments unless they knew that he was just too fine a citizen to really mean them. In fact, they actually serve to show his sensitivity to other people's insensitivity about race, sexuality, etc.

These sentiments aren't merely implied, either; the gay and black characters repeatedly feel the need to tell Spenser what a wonderful, true-blue guy he is. Eventually, the reader becomes woefully tired of hearing it.

Familiar Themes - Especially the Theme of What A Great Guy Spenser Is

Because I feel that it's part of a reviewer's job, I'll tell you the basic story: Spenser is hired to look into the murder of a wealthy Bostonian. His investigation is an attempt to show that the dead man's wife did not commit the crime, even though all the evidence points to her culpability.

The plot also involves financial scams, as well as some discussion of homosexuality and the way that gay people interact with each other and with society. Again, however, these are only vehicles for showing how great Spenser is. He's smart enough to understand the financial scams (while still making fun of the pointy-heads who explain them to him), and he's sensitive enough to understand how tough it must be to be gay in today's world.

All you really need to know is that this book contains the themes that have animated most of the recent Spenser novels: First, Spenser gets a case from a friend who knows what a great guy he is. Then he starts investigating, making lots of stuffed shirts mad because they don't understand what a gosh-darn great guy he is.

He and Hawk make jokes about how he's not getting anywhere, but all Spenser knows to do is keep looking until he finds something. In the course of the investigation, he encounters people with sad lives that he wants to help, and various nefarious people who threaten him, allowing him to reveal how gosh-darn tough he is.

Finally, of course Spenser solves the case - to great acclaim from his friends in Boston Police Department, who have been helping him out throughout the book, while repeatedly telling him what a great guy he is.

Now doesn't that sound interesting? What a great guy.

The Old Spenser Books: Much Superior

What made me most irritated about this book was that it caused me to question my affection for the earlier novels in this series. Admittedly, I started reading these books in high school - perhaps I was young and unable to judge a good book?

So I went back and re-read two of the earlier books: The Godwulf Manuscript and Mortal Stakes, two of my favorites from days gone by (no need to be impressed, these books don't take long to read). They're not masterpieces, but they consume a very enjoyable 3-4 hours, so they're perfect for a beach or airplane read. Spenser is amusing, and the plots move. There is no simpering or repeated discussion of Spenser's incredible value to the world around him. This indicates that part of the problem with the series was the introduction of Susan Silverman - the vast majority of the simpering takes place around her, and she doesn't play a major role in either of the earlier novels.

When I first began reading the Spenser novels, I eagerly awaited each new publication. Then about ten Spenser books ago, I stopped even considering buying the hardbacks. Four or five books ago, I stopped even buying the paperbacks. After this experience, I won't even read them when I get them for free.

While that commentary may not contain as much societal value as a discourse on the Rehnquist Court, or a manual on how to fight injustice, it's a pretty damning statement. Given how much I enjoyed some of the earlier books in this series, it's also one that I'm sorry to be making.


Sam Williamson is an attorney in New York.

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