Is Spenser Still for Hire?

Robert B. Parker writes mystery books. He uses short, direct sentences. Very short. Very direct. His bread-and-butter hero is a droll, over-muscled, never-rattled private detective from Boston named Spenser.

Spenser's approach to life, love, food and crime is as direct as Parker's sentences. That is to say, head-on. No double-talk.

I have been a fan for years. But until now I have kept it to myself. Out of vanity, I would hold the book so the cover wasn't visible when going in public--different than I'd do with, say, a volume by someone regarded as having more heft.

I talk to people about books all the time, but I cannot recall mentioning Parker more than once or twice. He sells scads of books, so I just presumed his readers were different. I figured he appealed mostly to people who picked up a book only for airplanes when they could not watch soap operas.

Well, I've changed my mind.

Yes, Parker goes down awfully easy. He doesn't ask a reader to stretch but just relax. A lot of potboiler writers do that. But he offers something that happens to be in diminishing, even endangered, supply these days: the old-fashioned idea of honor. And, I'll repeat, directness.

In Parker's latest mystery, "Potshot," a character describes Spenser this way: "The rest of us, we see something that needs to be done, we do it. We don't much care how we do it. Spenser thinks that how you do it is as important as what you do."

That's why I read Parker book after book.

Only in fiction can we count on this grand old myth about ourselves. In business and entertainment, in athletics and politics, in so much of public life, sophistry and doublespeak are not only accepted, they're expected.

The company is doing great, buy now, says the CEO, who is quietly selling off his holdings before the collapse.

We're not marketing violence to young people, say entertainment executives.

The country needs a new era of bipartisanship, says our new partisan in the White House.

Even the venerable New York Times, in its Sunday Magazine's "Survival Guide for Modern Living," advised how to fake and finagle your way to advancement.

Compared to the reality of everyday life, Robert B. Parker's Spenser is one of those things we can hold on to without feeling the need to wear latex gloves.

I am reminded of Spenser as I read about what passes for everyday public policy debate these days. Take just a few examples on the environment:

* Feeling the heat from constituents back home, moderate Republicans beseech President Bush. They ask not for a change in direction or decree, but in "presentation." That is, soften the message and carry on.

* A short while later, the president tries the strategy in a visit to Sequoia National Park, where he proclaims "a new environmentalism for the 21st century." At the same time his administration is negotiating to readmit snowmobiles into Yellowstone.

* Democrats, meanwhile, raise the roof when President Bush repudiates the Koyto global warming treaty, failing to acknowledge that the U.S. Senate condemned the same treaty a few years back 95-0, Democrats included.

I think of Spenser and his ideal: How you act is as important as what action you take. I know what he means. So do you.

In Washington and elsewhere in our culture, though, it's merely a matter of what you say more than what you do. It's the "presentation," not the deed.

Directness? Integrity?

I'm afraid that's for fiction and writers like Robert B. Parker.

Here is what I'm going to do. I have finished "Potshot," which, perhaps ironically, finds Spenser cleaning out a small Western town of crooked politicians, investors and thugs. But I'm going to remove the dust jacket and wrap it around the Wallace Stegner biography that is next on my reading list. And I'm going to carry it with the cover showing next time I walk through the airport.

Set an example for the kids.

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