The Widening Gyre by Robert B. Parker
A number of readers have commented on Goodreads and Amazon that my detective Freddy Ferguson reminds them of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. I had never read Parker, so I picked up a copy of The Widening Gyre at the library book sale and gave it a go.
The plot is fairly straightforward. Meade Alexander, a US congressman who is running for Senate, is being blackmailed by his opponent. Alexander is a devout Christian wooing deeply conservative voters. His wife, Ronni, who is a devoted wife in public and a heavy drinker in private, has had a tryst with a young college boy and someone recorded the whole affair in a graphic X-rated video. Alexander hires Spenser to ensure the tape never goes public.
As with any mystery/thriller novel, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The detective’s job is to peel back the layers, exposing the various players and their interests. Good detective novels are always studies in psychology, sociology, economics and culture. You have to delve into those areas to find what drives people into such messy situations.
On that score, Spenser does well. He’s a fundamentally humane and decent character who sometimes walks on shaky moral ground to accomplish his goals. Through the first half of the book, he comes off as a variation on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Spenser is not as cynical and world-weary as Marlowe. He’s more inclined to fight and less afraid to look at his own feelings, motivations, desires and shortcomings.
In the first dozen or so chapters, he sometimes comes off as an overconfident, wise-cracking thug. His constant literary allusions make him seem like a self-conscious intellectual. The book’s title, by the way, comes from the first line of one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century, William Butler Yeats' The Second Coming, and the name Spenser (with an s) is a reference to the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser.
Spenser the character becomes more interesting in the second half of the book, when we see him with his girlfriend, Susan. Among men, Spenser is a wise-cracking tough guy. Among women, he’s more real and introspective. His partner, Susan, is completing a PhD in psychology. She’s a hard rationalist who studies the human mind and heart from a clinical perspective. While Spenser claims not to believe in psychology, he’s actually a natural psychologist, apprehending intuitively more than many professional psychologists can grasp even after years of study.
A number of critics have said that Parker rejuvenated or re-centered the detective fiction genre with this character. If he did, it was by adding new dimensions of awareness, understanding and feeling to the archetypal tough-guy detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Hammett’s Continental Op was as physically tough and psychologically unshakable as a comic book super hero, a relentless engine of violent justice.
Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was more thoughtful and nuanced, but he was a loner who avoided attachment. He had a good understanding of human nature, but he seemed to view the world from the outside, his observations and judgments detached from feeling. Hammet’s Sam Spade fell somewhere between the two, though he was closer in character to Marlowe than to the violent Continental Op.
Spenser is Marlowe with family and social attachments. His observations and judgments come with feelings attached, and that allows readers to connect to him on a deeper level. He’s more than a problem solver.
While the plot of The Widening Gyre is not particularly surprising or inventive, the characters and situations are more than interesting enough to keep you reading. What makes a middle-aged woman get into a compromising situation with a young college boy? How about a marriage to a strict moralist incapable of understanding nuanced human emotion? How about the social pressure of a political campaign? Of having to appear in public day after day acting the role of the adoring wife? How about the drinking problem she’s developed to escape at the end of each day from a life she can’t otherwise escape?
Spenser’s girlfriend, Susan, hits on these topics in dinner conversation, in reference to herself. Why did she leave her husband? Because she got tired of being an adornment to the man. She had been seen so long through the lens of him that she no longer knew who she was.
No woman in a Hammett novel ever talked this way. They drank and cursed and screwed just like the men in Red Harvest, or they were wholesome and virginal, like Sam Spade’s secretary, Effie. Chandler’s women were deeper, their language and behavior sometimes showing undercurrents of the frustration of stifled individuality that Susan articulates so explicitly. But Chandler’s women never spoke openly of this, perhaps because it wasn’t socially acceptable in the nineteen forties, or perhaps because no women in that society at that time had the language to express what the culture was doing to them.
In the more liberal society that Susan inhabited, she was free to leave a marriage that wasn’t working. Meade Alexander’s wife had no such freedom, and when a person is confined from all sides, when all exits are blocked, the pressure builds unbearably until the person acts out in self-destructive ways.
Spenser understands this intuitively and has compassion for both the husband and the wife. He wants to save them both the humiliation of having her sex tape publicly exposed. Susan understands the situation both as a clinician and from having lived through and escaped a similar situation. Her attitude toward the couple is more rational and practical. Alexander and his wife haven’t fixed the root of the problem. Neither of them even understands it. How long will it be, Susan wonders, before Ronni Alexander does this again?
If, as the critics say, Parker reformed the detective fiction, his change must have been to bring more compassion and a broader social perspective to the genre. You don’t see protagonists or perspectives like this in earlier popular, mainstream novels. Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer was close, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee was a step backward, falling into bed with most of the women he was trying to help.
Aside from the character of Spenser, who I found only mildly compelling, what stood out most about this book was the way it captured two cities at a specific point in time. Half the book takes place in Boston, a city I’m not familiar with. The other half takes place in Washington, DC, where I grew up.
This book was published in 1983, and the action seems to take place in November and December of 1982 in the same parts of the city I hung out in at that time. I know the streets of Georgetown well, and Parker does a good job of describing what they were like back then.
Spenser and Susan share a meal at the old Hamburger Hamlet on Wisconsin Avenue, a place I had forgotten about until the author reminded me. He even got the description of the interior and the big beer mugs right.
Spenser and Susan spend the hours before that meal shopping at Mazza Gallery, a place my friends and I used to frequent because it had a McDonald’s and an overpriced record store called The Disc Shop. We’d go into Nieman Marcus now and then just to gawk at the prices and the middle-aged women who drove their Mercedes down from Potomac to drop five hundred dollars on a blouse before meeting up for lunch at The Pleasant Peasant.
Many of the details Parker uses to capture a point in time also make the novel feel dated. Who in the world remembers what kind of hat Willie Stargell wore when he wasn’t playing baseball? I can’t even find an image of it on Google. But if you want to picture the hat Susan bought for Spenser, you’ll need to know. Parker tosses off references like this as if they’re universal cultural knowledge. While the novels of Chandler and Ross Macdonald have come to feel timeless, the parade of forgotten songs, shows, and celebrities in The Widening Gyre make it feel dated.
As for whether Spenser and Freddy Ferguson have anything in common, they do. They’re both compassionate and introspective and occasionally violent in the service of justice. But where Spenser’s gratuitous literary allusions mark him as a self-conscious intellectual, Freddy’s knowledge comes from first-hand experience and direct observation. He’s built his understanding of the world entirely on his own. None of it came second-hand through books, and rather than quoting others, he prefers to express himself in his own words.
Overall, I give this book three stars out of five. It’s interesting enough to keep you reading, and it’s interesting as a cultural artifact, but it’s not particularly compelling.