Robert B. Parker
Dell Books, 1992 (Orig. 1976)
I’m from an generation for whom Avery Brooks is best known for playing Captain Sisco of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. For another generation, and a different set of genre fans, he is perhaps better known for his 65 episode run as Hawk, PI Spenser’s sometime companion (who even had his own short lived series A Man Called Hawk), in the TV’s Spenser for Hire. Hawk, though present in Promised Land, makes a fairly limited (and first) appearance; though it is an appearance the certainly leaves an impression.
Promised Land like many a detective story before it begins with a fairly simple missing persons case. PI Spenser is hired by a suburban businessman to find his missing wife. As things progress the plot takes a dramatic shift in two different directions when the missing wife gets entangled with some shady characters while her husband must fend off local toughs. The plot is fairly light on the actual mystery elements shifting away from the hermeneutic mode towards a greater emphasis on examining how Spenser reacts to the situation (thus creating apprehension and excitement via the proairetic code).
The Promised Land, in addition to having an engaging plot, spends a lot of time focusing on the character and identity of Spenser and his relationship to Susan Silverman. Indeed by throwing Spenser into a domestic case in which a wife is questioning the traditional gender roles she has been living and husband who is trying his hardest to live by his own predetermined gender roles Parker provides fruitful ground for examining Spenser’s own views on relationships.
This distracts from detective/crime novel aspects of Promised Land pushing those aspects to the background in favor of something more closely resembling a character study. In addition, I believe this marks the first introduction of Hawk into the series providing for a broadening of Spenser’s background and past; aiding in the creation of a more dynamic character and (one might hope) hooking readers into future volumes. While the plot was certainly exciting I found the examination of Spenser’s relationship and philosophy more fascinating then the novel’s main plot thread. Susan, and the secondary characters throughout the novel, serve as foils; means to both question and illuminate Spenser himself and, in the end, bring him into a more direct focus for the reader.
As mentioned the novel spends a great deal of time examining traditional gender roles and Spenser’s own opinions thereof. On the topic of marriage and people I think Spenser is fairly concise (though he elaborates later on) and clear when he first speaks to the MIA wife:
Sanctity of marriage is an abstraction, Mrs. Shepard. I don’t deal in those. I deal in what it is fashionable to call people. Bodies. Your basic human being. I don’t give a goddamn about the sanctity of marriage. But I occasionally worry about whether people are happy.
It is that last line I think that forms the foundation of Spenser’s actions throughout the course of Promised Land. It is a fairly noble purpose and one that doesn’t always earn Spenser a lot of friends. While the quote above marks the first time in the novel that I recall Spenser explicitly describing himself much of the novel is spend in dialogues that, while relevant to the novels plot, seem explicitly written to set the guidelines or template by which we can define Spenser. Mrs. Shepard points out Spenser’s innate character later in the novel:
You reek of machismo, and yet you are a very caring person. You have all these muscles and yet you read all those books. You’re sarcastic and a wise guy and you make fun of everything and yet you were really afraid I’d say no a little while ago and two people you don’t even like all that much would get into trouble.
A not-so-typical tough guy with heart, brains, and brawn. It’s a fairly concise and accurate definition but one that ignores many of the subtleties that are reflected in Spenser’s conversations with Susan. While these dialogues, and Spenser’s own musings, can occasionally come off as somewhat preachy they are by and large elegantly done and make for some compelling reading.
Promised Land is an excellent read well deserving of it 1977 Edgar Award win. Not only doesn’t it prevent a thrilling crime element it is a prim example of the subtly and nuance that is possible in detective fiction. The discussion of gender roles, marriage, and relationships were, especially for the seventies, topical given the prevalence of the Women’s Liberation Movement during that decade and even today remain fascinating. This was my Spenser novel and, if you’ve never tried a Spenser novel before, Promised Land might be a place to start.