I just finished my 17th Spenser mystery by Robert B. Parker — ‘Silent Night.’ Coincidentally, it’s the last one he wrote, or rather co-wrote. He was working on it when he died and Helen Brann, his literary agent for 32 years, finished it, with the blessing of Parker’s wife Joan.
Obviously it’s a formula I’m really comfortable with, and it suits my current inclination to avoid intellectual challenges of any kind.
What I like most about Spenser is that he beats up guys who are used to beating up people who are weaker than they are. It’s like the opening scene of the old David Carradine tv show ‘Kung Fu’ when a group of three or four hayseeds would start picking on this harmless looking Chinese guy, and pretty soon they’d be flying in the air in all directions.
Later in the show there would always be a long drawn-out heavily choreographed fight with a super villain, but that wouldn’t interest me much. I preferred the part where the bullies are taken by surprise. That’s what happens in the Spenser novels. He generally pounds the crap out of the bad guys in a very matter-of-fact way.
He also has a beautiful, sexy psychotherapist girlfriend, and they psychoanalyze all the characters and each other. And then there are the literary allusions. Spenser is a really well-read guy and he surprises people with quotations from Shakespeare and Wordsworth and Alexander Pope and people like that.
At the end of ‘Silent Night,’ Bran slips in a quote from William Butler Yeats, but she gets it wrong. She has Spenser say to the hip inner city priest, “Those I fight I do not hate. Those I guard I do not love,” which is, of course, a line from “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” But the actual line is: “Those that I fight, I do not hate. Those that I guard, I do not love.” You need the ‘thats’ for the meter. I noticed the slip right away because I won the public speaking prize at Dexter School in Brookline, Massachusetts, for a recitation of that very poem.
Here’s the whole poem:
An Irish Airman foresees his Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
The hip inner-city priest replies with a line from “The Municipal Gallery Revisited”:
“And say my glory was I had such friends.”
That’s from the oft-quoted last stanza of that poem:
You that would judge me, do not judge alone
This book or that, come to this hallowed place
Where my friends’ portraits hang and look thereon;
Ireland’s history in their lineaments trace;
Think where man’s glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends.
If James Joyce is the three-headed dog that scares people away from Irish literature, William Butler Yeats is the friendly bard who welcomes them in. So many people I know carry snatches of Yeats close to their hearts like lockets.
I guess my favorite is the “Lake Isle of Innisfree”:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.