Book Critique: Robert Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace


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
Robert Parker

Basics
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.

Summary
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.

Themes
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.

Style

Humor
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.

and

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).

Tough Guy
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.

Sensitive Spenser
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.

Issues
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!

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Writer of crime fiction, psychological drama, and dark humor.

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13 comments on “Book Critique: Robert Parker’s Looking for Rachel Wallace
  1. I love Robert B. Parker. One of my favorite authors and a serious influence on my writing style.

    I haven’t read this book, so I had to skip much of the post, but there’s no doubt that critical reading is one of the best ways to improve. I’ve actually never gone so far as to do a written critique, but I’m sure that’d be even more effective.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hey Stan – Thanks for stopping by. Same here: if I only had two authors to take with me on that proverbial desert island, Elmore Leonard and Robert Parker would be those two (okay, in crime fiction. there are 2 dozen more in other genres. let’s hope I don’t get stranded anytime soon).

      If you’re a Parker fan, Looking for Rachel Wallace is a must-read, I think. And, at just over 200 pages, you’ll burn through it in a couple of hours. Come back and look over my critique when you do; I’d love to know your thoughts!

      • Agreed. Elmore Leonard is so talented. I have trouble really digging all his stuff and getting into his books though because he’s so talented, he makes every character the main character. So, it seems like every book has like four or five (or more) main characters, and I’ve always preferred a simpler antagonist/protaganist format where I can really love one character and hate the other. (I’m probably not explaining this well, but you get my point I hope.)

        And I’d love to read “Looking for Rachel Wallace” next, but I wrapping up my sniper thriller novel, and I’m finishing up an extensive sniper-book binge I’m on. Got to make sure I don’t look stupid in my book.

        But I’ll jump on this as soon as I smoke those and check out your post then.

  2. wo3lf says:

    This was awesome. I loved that you did a critique of a Spencer book. I have pretty much read all of Robert B Parker’s books. They were of immense help when I attended law school ( not with the law bit, but with the I need to escape bit, which I did a lot… seriously, a lot). Same with Lee Child later on, although I am not sentimental about Child at all. Parker has a very special place on my shelves, along with L’Amour and Quinnell. Good memories there.

    I love Spencer as the highly literate goon-looking hero and the wise cracks are what kept me reading. Personally, the relationship between Susan and Spencer at times became tiresome, but that is just me. Oh, and Spencer makes cooking look cool.

    As for writing, I am still too new to have an opinion on whether it will influence me. I love his style as I love a few other writers’ styles. Time will tell.

    This article reminded again of the power of a good book. It can either piss you off or make your day.

    Thanks Matthew.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Hi Woelf – Thanks for stopping by and the thoughtful comments, as always. Interesting observation on Lee Child’s work; same here. I love the books (despite their outrageous coincidences), but certainly Spenser & Co. feel more real to me. There’s a part of my brain that assumes I can go up to Boston anytime I feel like and see one of Parker’s characters on the street, they’re so authentic. Not so with Jack Reacher.

      Paker’s style is contagious and–for a writer–almost dangerous. I’ve found myself emulating him almost too much. But there’s a lot to be learned, especially in his treatment/approach to using first person. Fascinating stuff for writing nerds like ourselves. 🙂

      p.s. Thanks so much for the thoughtful review of Assassin on Amazon. For someone who hasn’t written reviews before, you sure know how to put one together!

      • One point on your comment. I emulate Parker, too, but I’m not sure why that would be dangerous. Even if you got labeled as a Parker wananbe, wouldn’t you still have incredible sales and be super popular? Which frankly, I’m down with… : )

      • Matthew Iden says:

        Hey Stan – Oh, I’m down with selling millions of books, you betcha. Emulating Parker’s style is only dangerous in the sense that you might lose your way in finding your own.

        The great thing about this field we’re in is that you can write some damn good books on the way to discovering your own voice. And, while you do so, there could be worse things in the world than having your writing compared to Parker’s or Leonard’s!

      • Thanks for the compliment. It made me smile like an idiot. 🙂

        I know what you mean. Parker’s style is so relaxing and off the cuff, that when you do your own writing, you can’t help but allow humour of the dry and sarcastic variety to filter through.

        One of my false starts, which I did a little while ago, centred around a disgraced lawyer who moved to a seedy part of town and started a PI business utilising unconventional lawyering practices. I don’t know whether I subconsciously tried to emulate Parker or whether it was an aspect of my personality that influenced the writing, but it certainly contained elements of not only Spencer’s personality, but Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Chandler’s Marlowe etc. Could be that a mutated version of all of the above spilled out. I ran out of steam with it and never finished the story, so I don’t know. It felt relaxing enough to write though.

        The fantasy piece I am currently struggling with is much more serious, and I have to consciously guard against allowing it to become too humorous. Just the nature of the story and the world it takes place in makes humour almost misplaced. Instead, I opted for a more cynical approach, but even with that, one needs to be careful. It helps that it is a 3rd person POV.

        But you’re right. It is all fascinating stuff and having a discussion like this just makes me want to go reread all my hardboiled detective novels. Cheers!

  3. So, true. I’d say if I’m honest I’ve got some Parker, Stephen Hunter, Tom Clancy, and John Grisham in mine. At least, I hope I do!

  4. ellisv says:

    Excellent critique, Matt. I’ve read most of Parker’s books and loved them. The dry humor always makes me smile, and his snappy dialogue is terrific. My biggest issue, though, is Parker’s obsessive relationship with women. Spenser/Susan, Jesse Stone/Jen, and even the character in his early Love and Glory–all have the same relationship with the girl. I read an interview with him and he talked about his wife, Joan, in the same way.

    He was still one of the great writers. I try not to read anything by him when I’m writing because his influence is so strong.

    I enjoyed your insights. Thanks.

    • Matthew Iden says:

      Thank, Ellis! You’re so right about the humor and the dialogue. He just knew how to capture the essence of a scene in a couple of words. I still laugh out loud at his quip, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken.”

      His (sub-conscious and conscious) ideas about relationships are interesting. I might post my critique of his novel Crimson Joy; the premise is supposed to be about Spenser chasing a serial killer, but once I did my close reading, I realized most of the book is given over to the relationship power dynamics between Spenser and Susan. Except for the required chase scenes, the serial killer theme is a distant second place to the relationship story.

  5. […] fairly early installment in the saga of Boston-based P.I. Spenser is also among the most admired books in the series. Spenser, as critics have noted, is not so much a private detective as he is a […]

  6. Matthew Iden says:

    Reblogged this on matthew iden and commented:

    In honor of Robert B. Parker’s birthday (Sep. 17), I’m re-running this analysis I did of one of his best novels, Looking for Rachel Wallace. Enjoy!

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