Earlier this week, I talked about the usefulness of the book critique to help refine my writing. I thought I’d show a critique I did on one of crime fiction writer Robert Parker’s best Spenser novels, Looking for Rachel Wallace, a book that has helped me immensely as I try to make a career in the same field.
If the writing seems abbreviated or sloppy or informal, that’s the way I write these so as to better understand the critique later. It’s essentially a monologue I have with myself on paper; if I wrote any more formally or self-consciously, I feel that I’d lose something in the study. Unlike my guide in the previous post, there’s not much in the Issues section and there’s no Summary…I think I cover everything in the other sections. If I get a positive response, I’ll post a more complete critique on another novel.
I hope you find it helpful, but there are huge SPOILERS, obviously. Don’t read the critique if you haven’t read the book!
Looking for Rachel Wallace
Very short, 219 pages in 32 chapters. Takes places in two temporal chunks: the first in late October when Spenser is hired. They have several encounters that help with backstory and set up, then we fast forward (pg. 94) to three weeks before Christmas, when Spenser finds out Rachel has been kidnapped. Interestingly, it’s a Part I/Part II kind of division, much like Parker’s Crimson Joy has two parts: the first is the search for the killer, the second is the romantic conflict between Spenser and Susan. First person POV throughout.
Spenser is hired to guard Rachel Wallace, an outspoken lesbian women’s rights author and activist, from death threats she’s received upon release of her latest book. She and Spenser butt heads, however, and he is fired. Not long afterwards, Rachel is kidnapped. Blaming himself, Spenser begins the hunt for Rachel, eventually tracing her to the home of the wealthy English (their name, not nationality) family. The son, Lawrence, is the leader of a “family values” style organization that had protested Rachel’s latest book. But, more importantly, Julie Wells—Lawrence’s sister—is one of Rachel’s lovers and the combination prompts them to kidnap her. Spenser tracks them down, rescues Rachel, and kills Lawrence in the attempt.
Loyalty, sticking for values in the face of adversity. Bending or modifying one’s outlook for the sake of another. Homophobia (addressed in the 70’s!), feminism.
One of the funniest Spenser books, perhaps, or at least one of the funniest crime fiction books out there. The humor is unexpected, fast, dry, incredibly witty. Some examples:
“I am told that you are 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.
Someone among the pickets said, “There she is.” They all turned and closed together more tightly as we walked toward them. Linda looked at me, then back at the cops. We kept walking.
“We don’t want you here!” a woman shouted at us.
Someone else yelled, “Dyke!”
I said, “Is he talking to me?”
Rachel Wallace said, “No.”
It should be said that some people hate the wisecracks and the seemingly never-ending rejoinders and quips. But in my opinion, Parker balances on the edge and knows when to treat a scene seriously or, more importantly, when to interject a serious scene (e.g., the blow up with Quirk, a fight, Spenser feeling lousy for losing Rachel, holding Rachel’s hand when she needs comfort instead of another round of jokes). It’s not all roses…just mostly.
Give a Little
At several points, the story is made more meaningful because Parker shows Spenser making mistakes in judgment and then admitting it. He doesn’t dwell on it or mope or beat himself up; there are no histrionics. Specifically, however, he shows Spenser getting gently chewed out by Susan for not letting Rachel protest her way because of Spenser’s overwhelming need to control the situation. (This is a recurring theme between Susan and Spenser, as well: Spenser’s need to set the world right on his own terms, with anyone else’s needs be damned).
Later, the more obvious screw-up that comes out of this bull-headedness is that Rachel gets kidnapped. Parker shows Marty Quirk, Frank Belson, and then Spenser himself beating on him for making an error in both judgment (overlooking Julie Wells’s connection) and hubris (not letting Rachel have her way and thus letting the kidnappers nab her).
Parker needs to show Spenser as tougher than all the rest, and proves it by having him beat up the right guys (Mingo Mulready, popping Lawrence English in the gut, etc.). Parker subtly reinforces Spenser’s toughness by having third parties remark on things that have happened–when Belson hears that Parker took Mingo out, he’s impressed:
“Still,” Belson said. “He used to be goddamn good.”
But he also does this with some masterful “addition by subtraction”: Spenser gets jumped by four guys and loses (he gets his licks in, but gets still gets clocked). This is something Lee Child would never let happen to Jack Reacher; Reacher never gets beat, but as a result, we don’t believe in him as a real person, or at least less than we do in Spenser. In another case (early, when Spenser is talking to Ticknor to get the job):
“How did your nose get broken?”
“I fought Joe Walcott once when he was past his prime.”
“And he broke your nose?
“If he’d been in his prime, he’d have killed me,” I said.
By puffing up the opponent, Parker gets to reflect the glory onto Spenser. It’s a clever trick: it gives all the accolades along with a dose of humility, to boot.
A small, but telling thing: when Spenser braces Manfred, the KKK member who lives with his mother and breaks down crying when he’s really broken, Spenser pushes through his own self-loathing to keep digging for information, but feels awful. A second example: when Spenser rescues Rachel, he cries as well. Very little of this is introspective. We’re left to SEE that Spenser has a softer side. He may say things like, “I felt like crying, too.” Which is partially humorous, but mostly a serious assessment of the situation.
A small issue, but the ongoing macho “tough guys know other tough guys” club gets a little old. It’s useful, but gets too much play.
Happy Friday the 13th, everyone!