Trash Lit: Spenser says goodbye in 'The Professional'

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The Professional
Robert B. Parker
Penguin Books, 289 pages, $26.99

I just read the last Spenser novel, ever.

That’s a hard sentence to write. Spenser’s been around a long time, and I’ve read all 37 of Robert B. Parker’s classic tough-guy detective books, and even though they all have the same characters, similar plots, similar dialogue and similar themes, they’re all good. Every last one of them.

And I think it’s probably a good thing that this was the last one of them. I don’t know if Parker realized he was coming to the end of his life as he wrote The Professional, but you get the sense that Spenser is coming to the end of his. Not that the guy’s going to die – like Travis McGee, Spenser will long outlive his creator. But this book has a sort of melancholy sadness to it, a sweet sort of swan song feeling, and by the time you get to the end, you sense that Spenser’s pretty much done.

The plot is typical Parker: A sleazy con man is seducing young women who have rich older husbands. He videotapes the encounters and then threatens the clueless chicks with blackmail. He wants money, big money, or he’ll tell the hubbies – and the days of living large (and waiting to inherit the cash) will come to an end. The women are afraid to go to the cops, of course, so they go to Spenser. His job is to make the con man back off.

It’s the sort of thing that in an earlier version of Spenser would have been too simple to drag out into an entire novel. He’d go with his buddy Hawk, warn the sleazeball that the future was looking pretty shaky, maybe smack him around a bit just for good measure, the dude would split town and all would be well.

But this time, Spenser can’t do it. He almost kinda likes the creep, who is utterly straightforward about his lust for young women, his love for the chase and the score and his gleeful wonder at the fact that he’s figured out a way to make money at the game. Spenser and his main squeeze, Harvard shrink Susan Silverman, puzzle over the bad guy, polyamory relationships and the ethics of sex, while one of the rich hubbies, who has figured things out, sends two dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks thugs to kill Mr. Smooth. So Spenser has to stop them, but as it turns out, he kind of likes the thugs, too, since they are, after all, totally authentic: Marginal men who realize they have no value to society except for their ability to be half-rate muscle.

In the end, there’s a murder, and Spenser makes everything (almost) right. But his heart really isn’t in it.

In fact, this is the first and only Spenser book I’ve ever read that had an overdone edge to it. The dialogue is what makes Parker’s stuff work, and the interactions between Spenser and Silverman and Hawk in The Professional were predictable and dull. It’s as if the master of modern pot-boilers, the Man himself, Robert B. Parker, author of more than 50 top-rate books, was finally running out of steam.

There are the usual literary references (including a nice plug for Janet Evanovich, one of my longtime faves), but they seemed forced. The violence is tired. I was almost ready to give up, but I stuck around for the end, which was worthwhile – if only because it told me that this was the last we’d be hearing from Spenser.

The Professional reminded me of The Green Ripper, John D. MacDonald’s latter-era McGee book, where the author is clearly done with the character but cranks him up for one last stand, one final favor to the fans, a victory lap that gets more and more painful as it nears the finish line.

If you’re a Parker fan, you need to read The Professional. It’s a wake, of sorts; a chance to say goodbye. And it may have been Parker’s way to telling his fans that the fun is finally over.

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