Monday, 17 February 2020

Looking For Rachel Wallace, by Robert B. Parker, at 40

Forty years ago this month, Robert B Parker published the sixth Spenser novel, Looking For Rachel Wallace.
cover scan of my 1987 Penguin edition
Spenser is hired to look after the campaigning lesbian-feminist author Rachel Wallace.

Her new book is going to dish the dirt on people in high places, but its publication brings death threats.  The reluctant Rachel doesn’t like macho wise guys like Spenser and a clash of personalities is inevitable.

After Spenser is fired, Rachel Wallace is kidnapped but the Boston private eye feels honour-bound to find her.

As I wrote in my appreciation of Robert B. Parker (from 2014, you can read it here), I got into crime fiction in the late 80s, starting with Raymond Chandler (after watching The Long Goodbye on Alex Cox’s wonderful Moviedrome thread) who led me to Sara Paretsky’s V I Warshawski series, the Hannah Wolfe novels from Sarah Dunant and various stand-alone titles.  In early 1988, while browsing in Kettering W H Smiths, I picked up - quite by chance - Parker’s Promised Land and fell in love with it (I wrote about it here), becoming an instant fan and working my way through the series until Double Deuce in 1992 (when we parted company).  The earlier novels, in my opinion, are definitely the better ones and I was really pleased to find Looking For Rachel Wallace, on re-reading, still stands up perfectly well, sexual politics and all, being a cleverly constructed mystery with great characters.

Hired by her publisher, Spenser is assigned to protect the feminist-lesbian writer Rachel Wallace, who is ruffling feathers left and right with her new book, Tyranny, that exposes prejudice in high office and business in the Boston area.  When his macho ways include getting into a fight to protect her, Rachel fires Spenser and when, three weeks later she’s kidnapped, he feels duty-bound to find her.  Told with engaging wit and nicely playing the whole spectrum of sexual politics, this sees Parker fitting into the rhythms he’d use for the remainder of the series and promotes Susan Silverman to full partner (she plays a considerable role in the story too).  The characters are well rounded, the mystery falls into place well and Quirk and Belson have much more to do than usual (though Hawk doesn’t make an appearance, more’s the pity).  In keeping with the timeline, this is more violent (Spenser kills two people at one point) than the later books, but Parker also tries to explain the ‘male code’, which is interesting (and sets up a nice relationship with a young cop called Foley).  With a cracking climax - Spenser staging a break-in - that takes place against a blizzard which has brought Boston to a stand-still, this zips along at a rapid pace and is never less than interesting.  Well worth a read!
Robert B. Parker
There really is a lot to like in this.  Spenser and Susan work well together, without a lot of the over-the-top relationship material which tends to overpower the story in later novels and Parker smartly allows Susan to add weight to Spenser’s interplay with Rachel Wallace.  The writer is a terrific creation, strong, smart and resilient and although she and Spenser will never see eye-to-eye, you get a sense of mutual respect from the midpoint (certainly towards the end) and Rachel would re-appear in A Catskill Eagle (1985), Stardust (1990) and Sudden Mischief (1998), developing a strong relationship with Spenser.

Although Hawk doesn’t appear (which is a shame, as I love his character), Lieutenant Martin Quirk and Sergeant Frank Belson do, with fairly big roles (Belson especially) and there’s a well played flare-up between Spenser and Quirk where both men are aware that our hero has slipped up (he fails to make a connection between the villains and a character we already know).  Indeed, the novel’s not afraid to show Spenser making mistakes, not least in his indirectly allowing Rachel to be kidnapped and I think this is one of the few occasions where he loses a fight (though, to be fair, it is against four people) and suffers the physical pain for it.  We also meet the neatly drawn Foley, a young policeman who proudly wears his Vietnam War decorations and clearly follows the same moral code as Spenser & Hawk.

Boston, as ever, is well captured with Parker presumably giving us some of his own thoughts on the city, especially the Boston Public Library at the start of chapter 19:

"The main entrance to the Boston Public Library used to face Copley Square across Dartmouth Street. There was a broad exterior stairway and inside there was a beautiful marble staircase leading up to the main reading room with carved lions and high-domed ceilings. It was always a pleasure to go there. It felt like a library and looked like a library, and even when I was going in there to look up Duke Snider's lifetime batting average, I used to feel like a scholar.
Then they grafted an addition on and shifted the main entrance to Boylston Street. Faithful to the spirit, the architect had probably said. But making a contemporary statement, I bet he said. The addition went with the original like Tab goes with pheasant. Now, even if I went in to study the literary influence of Eleanor of Aquitaine, I felt like I'd come out with a pound of hamburger and a loaf of Wonder bread."

One nice touch, I thought - Spenser & Rachel meet Susan for dinner at Rosalie’s restaurant in Marblehead which is not only a real place, it’s still operating.  As for the blizzard, Boston really was brought to a standstill by one in 1978 (you can read more about it here, at the Boston Globe) which would make sense in terms of the time Parker was writing the novel.

Part of the clash between Spenser and Rachel is her assertion she has no sense of humour and his frequent quipping.  There’s usually plenty of wisecracks in the series but this has some really smart lines.

After being introduced to Rachel she grills him and Spenser reckons “if I’d had tires, she’d have kicked them.”

When he meets Rachel’s publisher, John Ticknor, the man comments he’s been told Spenser is “quite tough.”

“You betcha,” I said. “I was debating here today whether to have the lobster Savannah or just eat one of the chairs.”

Ticknor smiled again, but not like he wanted me to marry his sister.

Crossing a picket line at the Belmont Public Library, one of the demonstrators yells “Dyke!”

I said, “Is he talking to me?”

Rachel Wallace said, “No.”

The Belmont library scene also includes a nice touch in that the audience is under-appreciative, which happens a lot more than non-writers would imagine and it only gets worse later when they go to a book signing and Rachel has to contend with “where do you get your ideas?”

Lastly, in Chapter 10, while guarding Rachel’s hotel room, he’s approached by Callahan, the house detective (he also re-appears in other novels) who asks him for identification.

I handed him my license. He looked at it and looked at me. “Nice picture,” he said.
“Well, that's my bad side,” I said.
“It's full face,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.

hardback third edition (1980) from Delacorte Press (New York)
If you’re intrigued by the Spenser series and looking to get into it, then I envy the enjoyment you have to come.  Although I would, of course, recommend Promised Land (wholeheartedly) or this as starting points, it’s worth bearing in mind the books sit in a chronological timeline so it’s perhaps best to start at the beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript.

Bullets And Beer: Looking For Rachel Wallace

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