Saturday, June 2, 2012

Looking for Rachel Wallace

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Looking for Rachel Wallace (Delacorte, 1980).

Rather than charting out a regular rotation of novels from the Spenser series about which I will write something, I decided that I would just write a few words about Robert B. Parker's fiction on those occasions where I hit something abnormally memorable. Suffice it to say that they're all very interesting and that I recommend each of them, although some with more enthusiasm than others.

1980's Looking for Rachel Wallace is a very, very curious novel, and one more interesting to contemporary eyes as a period piece than as a work of detective fiction. In it, Spenser is hired to act as the bodyguard to a radical, lesbian author. Just by virtue of the fact that she's gay, her public appearances and meetings with lunchtime book clubs attract more controversy and protests than present-day demonstrations and marches for actual marriage attract in 2012. We are still not where we need to be, but we have come a long way in 32 years.

But while the debates are fascinating, a brilliant time capsule of attitudes and perspectives of sex and gender politics during the Carter era, what makes this a real novelty for the genre is that there is no mystery of any kind for the first half of the novel. There are minor moments of excitement as Spenser protects Wallace from ugliness and threats, but his machismo aggravates her too much and she fires him after just a few days on the job. Two months later, Wallace is kidnapped and Spenser is asked to help with the investigation. Naturally, Spenser being Spenser, he says his piece and provides what help he can, and then he goes off and digs into things on his own.

The problem, considering what I prefer from detective fiction, is that there is no mystery here at all. There is really only a single suspect for Wallace's abduction thanks to Parker's decision to link every event reported in the novel's first half into one connected narrative, and nothing that surrounds it comes as any surprise. That is, as the investigation unfolds, this string of events has an unbelievable level of coincidence connecting everything. There is a particularly entertaining scene where Spenser is overwhelmed by four thugs, but gets some good licks in before he goes down, and then, after washing his face and having a shot, goes right back to work more determined than before. Otherwise, the novel has few surprises, and I found it more enjoyable for the politics than anything else.

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