Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ceremony

A reader of the blog got in touch with me upon my review of The Sword-Crossed Blonde, and a short conversation about the noir/detective genre ensued before I took off for San Diego. During the conversation, I realized that my knowledge of the genre comes from reading Chandler and Hammett, and from seeing the great movies, so I asked my correspondent for some recommendations. He turns out to be a fan of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series and so suggested I check out Ceremony.

When I set the book down after finishing it, my first response was that it was very simplistic, as signified by my finishing the book in about three hours' time. There really is not much of a mystery, in the sense of something that Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes would solve; Spenser is hired to find a missing girl, April Kyle, and he follows his leads in a pretty straight line to her. Things get a little twisted upon her discovery when Spenser and his girlfriend learn that April is happier in her life of petty crime than she was at her home. And then there's the suspicion that someone wants him to stop pursuing the case, and he has to find out why. None of this is to say that I didn't enjoy the book, but when I realized how much I had enjoyed it, it seemed at odds with my feeling of the simplicity of the book.

One of the great strengths of the novel, typifying the genre, is the strongly defined character. Spenser, despite the many unanswered questions about him from a single novel, feels tremendously alive in his narration and actions in the course of the novel. He never describes himself physically, but his personality is carefully shaped through the course of his narration and actions in the novel. He is street-wise but clearly educated, able to move about Boston and its suburbs pretty freely while appreciating (and quoting) literature and practicing gourmet cooking. When confronted with people he doesn't like, he seems to constantly battle against his own violent urges, barely tolerating the interaction while awaiting the release of his hair-trigger temper. He is devoted to the people he does like, a stalwart friend who would do anything he is asked. He is also incredibly perceptive, allowing the narrative to fully describe the people he does interact with. Again, generally, the physical descriptions are far less important than the impressions of motivation and personality that Parker is able to plant in Spenser's words. It would be tempting to describe Spenser as the tough guy with the heart of gold, but such a facile description really doesn't do justice to the depths Spenser has. He is complex and multi-faceted, a fascinating personality that pulls the reader into the novel and makes it difficult to escape. He is, put simply, an adult.

And as a result he has adult relationships which are a delight to take witness. The most important is with his girlfriend Susan Silverman. Although their love for each other is deep and obvious, their relationship has conflict, in part because they both have such strong personalities and opinions. They don't agree on everything, and so they have mature conversations to define their differences and seek compromise. And yet they are passionate about one another, accepting each other for their strengths and weaknesses and establishing a powerful foundation for their life together. Spenser even goes so far as to describe how Susan is integral to his life and happiness, which feels unusual for "the tough guy with a heart of gold." And because Spenser is so mature, Susan must be as well.

The second most important relationship is with Hawk, the mysterious figure that appears angelic but can be as violent as needed when called upon. Spenser uses Hawk both for his knowledge about the underside of Boston and as muscle when Spenser doesn't want to act alone. There are hints of the camaraderie they feel, and their relationship frankly puzzles Susan. Hawk and Spenser share a bond that is not explained in the novel but often discussed and which feels hypernormal. Men do place a great deal of trust in one another, and that trust can grow apparently without bounds, but Hawk and Spenser apparently live the archetype—they communicate almost without speaking and share a wry view of their world that readers can only admire. Part of what stretches the credulity of this relationship for the reader is that we are given absolutely no basis (at least within this one novel) for such a strong relationship to exist. Theirs is the friendship of soldiers fighting together in war, which makes an interesting metaphor for the kind of work that Spenser does, but since Spenser and Hawk do not discuss its origin, it feels almost magical in nature. However, this is forgivable since Hawk is such a fascinating and mysterious character, puckishly stealing nearly every scene he is in with sharp humor or barely contained action.

Considering these facets of the novel, I was forced to take a step back and recognize that the narrative is in first person. As a result, the powerful impressions these characters make are based solely on their description by one of their own number. The narrator can't use flashbacks or omniscience to describe why a character is who he is—instead all of it must be filtered through the lens that is Spenser. Spenser is simply spoken, generally using short declarative sentences without much sophistry. And yet, Spenser and the other characters sparkle with life. To succeed so wildly at making the characters stand out despite the handicap of only seeing what they see is the signature of a powerfully good author. Parker has created a set of characters that would be a delight to return to over and over, no matter what they are doing. Given their personalities and their relationships, watching them discuss politics over the dinner table would make for a fascinating read.

Another sign of the skilled writer is to take a step beyond the tropes of the genre and use them to his or her advantage. While the plot is relatively straightforward—good girl goes bad and has to be saved—Parker confounds the trope by having April actually enjoying the prostitution she performs, even if it is only in comparison to her abysmal home life. Spenser and Susan uncover a particularly unsavory prostitution ring, which in turn leads to an even more unsavory pornography ring. Spenser makes it clear that he is all for live and let live—that the greatest gift a person can be given is to make decisions for themselves—but he and Susan discuss April's ability to decide, even if they free her from the world she is in. Past episodes make it clear that April will return to the life she has made for herself if taken from it, and Spenser is torn between Susan's compassionate determination that April deserves better and his own cynical realization that April couldn't care less. So while the "crime" unfolds and is resolved in a relatively straightforward fashion, this puzzle of what happens after the resolution sits in the background. And how Spenser and Susan resolve the question, their conversations leading up to their solution and how it is enacted just rip the trope to shreds. There is power in facing up to the hard decisions and making the best of them, and there is readerly delight in not accepting the rote answer…of going beyond the trope.

So this skillfully written story, realistic in its portrayal of its characters and in dealing with the way life really works, is wrapped up in a deceptively simple package. It's obvious why the Spenser books have such a huge following; even if the reader doesn't feel the need to take the time to examine the literary merits of Ceremony, those merits will move the reader in powerful and unexpected directions. I don't know how much of Parker I am going to read—my reading stack of speculative fiction is already huge and adding detective stories, even short ones, to the stack pains me—but I would not be unhappy to find myself with time and another one of the books in hand. Parker's writing makes me care about these characters, and so I want to spend time with them when I can. Be warned, I suspect that most readers even slightly inclined to the genre or appreciative of strong writing may end up getting pulled into that happily sad circumstance: so many good books to read and not nearly enough time.

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