Review by Martha Nichols
In this Venerable Mystery Series, the Tough Guy Talks…and Talks
Don’t miss “Letters from Spenser,” Lisa Solod’s companion piece about Robert B. Parker in this issue.
Sixkill: A Spenser Novel by Robert B. Parker (Putnam, 2011, 293 pp., $26.95 hardcover).
It’s like eating a tuna-melt sandwich. Before Sixkill, I hadn’t inhaled a Robert B. Parker book for eons. Yet, his last novel about Spenser, that tough but honorable Boston private eye, is a salty, greasy classic.
It’s a strange book, too: shaggy and rambling, full of telegraphed references to past episodes and characters (a wink to longtime Spenser fans) but also rich with intimations of mortality. I enjoyed it more than many a tightly plotted, formulaic tale.
Parker died in 2010 at the age of 77; Sixkill was published posthumously this May. By my calculations, Spenser himself is pushing 80. That doesn’t stop a sexy attorney named Rita Fiore from telling him, “You know perfectly well that half the women in the city would disrobe in a heartbeat if you simply glanced at them.”
Fictional detective heroes aren’t bound by the normal laws of space and time, of course. Neither are romantic interests like Susan Silverman, Spenser’s lady love for decades. At one point, Zebulon Sixkill of the novel’s title, Spenser’s new young sidekick, even says Susan has a “good ass.”
Sixkill galloped onto the New York Times best-seller list almost immediately. That probably says more about the age—and aging fantasies—of those who buy newly released hardcovers than anything else. But improbable as this talky wiseguy novel seems in the age of YouTube, I find Parker’s continued success reassuring.
“Sometimes the temptation to amuse myself is irresistible,” Spenser tells readers early in Sixkill, channeling his author. These days, this P.I. talks way too much, but I love the idea that we’re still talking—that words, after all, are what define us.
Manly, Yes—But Literary, Too
If you’ve never read a Spenser novel, here are the basics: He’s a licensed private investigator with a crummy office. He was a heavyweight boxer and still works out at the gym. He used to be a State trooper with a local D.A.’s outfit but didn’t like bosses telling him what to do. He’s manly but well-read. He’s a good cook, a wood carver.
Spenser teams up with occasional players on the wrong side of the law. The most famous of these is his friend Hawk, who in the 1976 novel Promised Land sounds like he wandered off a Blaxploitation set:
He had on a powder blue leisure suit and a pink silk shirt with a big collar. The shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and the chest and stomach that showed were as hard and unadorned as ebony.”
Even back in the day, though, Parker playfully twisted stereotypes. Promised Land, the fourth Spenser novel and winner of an Edgar Award, includes gun-loving radical feminists who emulate the Black Panthers. While Parker’s pokes at “libbers” are now dated, Hawk was a memorable, complex character long before Tony Soprano. (In Sixkill, alas, Hawk is off the scene, somewhere in Central Asia.)
Early in the series, Parker’s prose could attain the noirish heights of Raymond Chandler (quite intentionally) and sometimes the literary economy of Hemingway. Toward the end of The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser’s debut in 1973, the P.I. tersely describes making coffee and frying sausages after getting shot. He takes a shower:
I liked getting dressed, feeling the clean cloth on my clean body. I paid special attention to it all. It was good not to be dead in the mud under a blue spruce tree.”
The plots are forgettable. Or maybe it’s just that they blend together, even if you haven’t read every one of the 39 installments to date in this series (and by no stretch have I).
But Parker’s vivid detailing of Boston stands out. It had already influenced my perception of the city before I moved to nearby Cambridge in 1990. Once I was here, a California friend asked me what the heck the Emerald Necklace is. She wanted to know because “they’re always talking about it in Spenser novels.”
A Plot-Challenged Page Turner
The first of these novels were far more atmospheric than Sixkill. I recently re-read Promised Land and was rewarded with descriptive passages like this:
In fact the whole Cape echoed with a sense of the ocean, not necessarily its sight and not always its scent or sound. Sometimes just the sense of vast space on each side of you. Of open brightness stretching a long way under the sun.”
Sixkill suffers in such a comparison and not just because gritty parts of Boston like Southie or the Combat Zone have gentrified since the ‘70s.
The storyline of this last Spenser tale has a cartoonish quality. A bad-boy Hollywood actor named Jumbo Nelson may have raped and killed local girl Dawn Lopata. Quirk, the police captain, asks Spenser for unofficial help. It turns out that Jumbo’s agent has mob connections in L.A. Spenser gets fired, but he keeps working the case. He throws a left hook, a right cross. There’s a fight in a dark warehouse.
The only one who seems worried is Susan. I felt not one spark of suspense.
Still, Sixkill is a surprisingly zippy read, and I often found myself laughing out loud. Take Parker’s masterful descriptions of side characters. Here’s Mrs. Lopata, the victim’s mother, when Spenser first knocks on her door: “She had a very big engagement ring, a smoker’s thin face, and the blondest hair I had ever seen.”
Spenser explains to her that he’s been hired as an investigator by Jumbo’s attorneys, adding, “Mostly I’m just trying to establish what happened.” The exchange with Mrs. Lopata then hurtles forward in classic Parker style:
‘We already got that established,’ she said. ‘The fat pervert killed my daughter.’
“‘May I come in?’ I said.
“‘May as well,’ she said. ‘Better to our face than snooping around behind our back.’
“I smiled. These were, after all, bereaved parents.
“‘I may do some of that, too,’ I said.”
As for Jumbo Nelson, a mix of John Belushi, Charlie Sheen, and any other celebrity terror you care to toss in, it’s not long before Spenser has called him “a repellant puke.” When Spenser meets him, accompanied by Rita the attorney, Jumbo flings out: “You the man going to make this cockamamie fucking legal shit go away?” Then:
He poured honey on a biscuit, ate the biscuit in one bite, and wiped his fingers on his bathrobe.
“‘Maybe,’ I said.
“‘Whaddya mean maybe,’ Jumbo said. ‘Hot pants says you can jump over skyscrapers.’
“I looked at Rita. Hot pants?”
For Parker, taking gleeful aim at Hollywood narcissists and sex addicts is like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s tasty fun.
What doesn’t work so well is the introduction of Zebulon Sixkill, who’s not meant to be a side character. A former Native American college football star, Z is big and strong. He’s also an alcoholic who doesn’t talk much, and that’s a problem for a Parker protagonist.
Z begins as Jumbo’s bodyguard—“a full-blooded Cree warrior,” in the blustering actor’s words—although by the second time Spenser encounters Z, the grizzled detective makes short work of the soused warrior. Jumbo then calls Z a “fucking wimp” and tells him to “take a goddamned hike.”
Spenser’s desire to save Z is predictable. Soon enough, he comes across the mysterious ex-bodyguard passed out (“fragrant with booze”) in front of his office. Z then starts working for Spenser as his backup muscle and apprentice. By the end of the novel, Susan has noted that Zebulon Sixkill is even starting to sound like Spenser.
The thing is, Z’s motivations can’t be summed up in a capsule description. Instead, Parker uses italicized sections throughout the novel to convey the “Zebulon Sixkill” back story, told in the third-person. No matter how deft these are—or how much analysis Susan the therapist offers—it’s not clear why Z would agree to the equivalent of a Vulcan mind meld with Spenser.
Rapping at Heaven’s Door
The Zebulon scenes, with their classic narrative build, also underscore what’s missing in the rest of Sixkill: drama, character development, a coherent story that illuminates at least one seamy patch of Boston and the assortment of people it knocks together.
But hey, there’s lots of cracking wise. After one set of toughs have been dispatched, Quirk, the police captain, asks Z what he’s getting out of helping Spenser. Z flips right back: “‘Squaw, two ponies.’”
I doubt complex storylines are the reason most Parker fans pick up his novels. It’s the dialogue, baby—as the ‘70s-era Hawk might say—even when all the talk has nothing to do with advancing the plot. In this novel, the snappy talk is both a strength and a weakness.
Once his Spenser series hit the big time in the ‘80s, Parker was free to mess around with the usual devices of the genre. Sometimes this can seem self-indulgent. In Sixkill, the many chapters in which Spenser and Susan shoot the breeze did not delight me. They natter on about Z; they joke about Harvard. They talk about their relationship, endlessly.
And yet, I was hooked by the opening, which included none of the absurd cliffhangers or gory murders that grace the first paragraphs of many thrillers.
Instead, Spenser describes the weather. Quirk wanders into his office and helps himself to coffee—and they talk about a comic strip in the Globe. It’s as if they’ve known each other forever, which they have. (Spenser met Quirk, who was then a lieutenant, way back in The Godwulf Manuscript.) It’s a full page before they mention Jumbo Nelson.
Many of the chapters also end in mid-conversation rather than with traditional kickers to build suspense, an approach that throws you off kilter without trumping up the stakes. It’s like eavesdropping on a real conversation. You lean forward—or keep turning the pages—not to find out what happens next but to hear what someone says.
Revisiting Promised Land and The Godwulf Manuscript, I’ve realized that Parker always did this. He and Elmore Leonard and all the other dialogue-writing pros revel in talk. For them, conversation not only reveals character; it conjures a world that feels truly lived-in.
It may be a shadowy world, with threats on every side, your own death lurking just a gunshot away. Yet, you feel most alive in the wisecracks, the defiance, in that exchange of words with another human being. Hey. Hey, back. Hey, I’m here.
For Parker, whose macho heroes are lonely musers, maybe defying mortality was what it came down to. Sixkill, despite its flaws, is more than another detective novel. At the end, Spenser really does drive into the sunset, but when tough guys and gals keep talking…and talking…it’s not just about laughing at death. It’s a celebration of life.
Additional Publishing Information:
- The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker, originally published by Dell, 1973.
- Promised Land by Robert B. Parker, originally published by Dell, 1976.
Some Writers—and Private Eyes—Never Die
Sixkill is the last Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, but it’s apparently not the last of Spenser. In April 2011, Parker’s publisher announced that mystery writer Ace Atkins would be taking over the series, with a new title due out in 2012. For details, see “Despite Author’s Death, Crime Series to Continue” in the New York Times.
You can also read an obituary of Robert B. Parker and find out more about his various detective series at his Penguin/Putnam website.
And take a look at “The Return of the Blogger,” Parker’s last blog entry in May 2009. It’s poignant in retrospect but also wonderfully typical. Of his writing at the time, including Sixkill, Parker notes:
Several of you have asked how I can produce so many books a year. One answer would be: I am a creative giant. Another would be: I have no life. But the truth is probably more that Joan [his wife] thinks I should…. I am currently writing a book with the working title SIXKILL in which a new character joins Spenser’s world. Probably be out next year. Joan likes it….[T]ime to go box with my trainer (who has promised not to hurt me). rbp”
Martha Nichols is Editor in Chief of Talking Writing. Her favorite mystery writers of the moment are Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie.
“Jane Eyre reminds me that I love fictional autobiographies—from David Copperfield to Lolita—far more than most memoirs. Fictional autobiographies are more fun. They give us all the dirt, rather than holes in the story because an author is protecting Mom or Sister.” — “Jane Eyre’s Autobiography”