Saturday, 14 November 2009


If you were looking for a book to sum up all the strengths and weaknesses of Robert B Parker's Spenser novels, The Professional might well be it. On the surface, it's a perfect set-up for the tough yet sensitive private eye whom almost all women seem to find irresistible; Spenser is hired by a group of four trophy wives, all of whom are being blackmailed by a gigolo, and none of whom wants their husbands to know. But when Spenser finally tracks down the stud in question, whose name is Gary Eisenhower, aka any number of more sophisticated aliases, things don't go quite the way he planned. First off, he feels a certain amount of sympathy for Gary, which appears to arise from an instinctive understanding of Gary's almost sociopathological disorder. It doesn't take Spenser long to figure out Gary likes the feeling of outdoing the big men who keep the trophy wives, and he also finds that Gary is relatively honest, within the framework of being a blackmailing gigolo. Then one of the wives, Beth Jackson, gets threatened. And her husband, Chet, who's on the shadier side of business, turns up dead. And Gary turns up as the prime suspect.

What's most interesting here is the way Spenser treats Gary, almost professional to professional, men who follow the codes of their chosen professions, by which I don't mean irrresistible stud. It doesn't quite work that way, but there seems to be an element of moralising going on here; Gary's blackmail is not such a bad thing because people need to be responsible for their actions—the most noble character in the book is a college president who stood up to Gary when he blackmailed her and faced down the consequences. I was wondering if Eisenhower was supposed to refer us back to the up-tight Fifties, when blackmail was rife. And where Beth Jackson might have stepped right out of a John D MacDonald novel, as longtime Spenser readers might imagine, Gary's neurosis provides plenty of fodder for Spenser and Susan Silverman to discuss, and thus prove to us that their relationship transcends such things. And that is where the weak points begin.

The Gang of Four wives are portrayed with a fairly shallow touch of caricature, their stories irrelevant apart from one wife who's protecting her gay husband's secret. Chet, it turns out, is in the classic film noir scenario, in love with a woman he knows is no good; he even confesses to Spenser that he's had therapy for this, before asking Spenser in another scene if he thinks he's a psychiatrist himself. Of course he does, Chet! There is a hugely funny scene where Chet tells Beth she can go off with Gary, except he'll cut her off completely from his cash, and she looks at Gary for advice and he says 'take the money, that's what I'd do.'

But the biggest problem with the story is Beth, who turns out to be a less than compelling femme fatale. Parker even goes as far as providing her with a semi-sympathetic back story, but it isn't enough; her character remains one dimensional (two, if you include sex, or the promise thereof). Beth needs to manipulate men to get what she wants, and, it occurs to me she might well be the professional of the title. But athough she's not a compelling character herself, Parker has set up a compelling end. It's not particularly original, and one gets the sense that the story has been constructed to get us to that place, but it works particularly well for two reasons. One is that the story has also been constructed to set this relationship off against many of the others, and the contrast is powerful. The other is that Parker remains a master of tone. Usually that tone is flippant, lightly entertaining, wise-crakcing; Chandler with a degree in psych. Detectives and shrinks are the real professionals of his books. But sometimes, his tone can be exactly right for the emotional effect he wants to convey, and that's what it is here. It's a moving ending, in a downbeat way, and all the better because Parker doesn't try to make it louder.

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