FORGOTTEN BOOKS: EARLY AUTUMN!
ROBERT B. PARKER
Yeah, okay, I know – this isn’t exactly a forgotten book, but I’m still kind of haunted by Parker’s passing. As a result, I wanted to take this week’s Forgotten Book entry to talk about one of Parker’s earliest Spenser novels – one which, for me, stands above the rest.
Early Autumn was Spenser’s seventh outing, a novel in which Parker was really beginning to hit his stride, stretching the private eye novel beyond its traditional boundaries. A few books later, Parker would lose his way for a short while, before hitting stride again and changing the face of hardboiled prose forever.
The plot in Early Autumn is simple. Paul Giacomin, is a young boy at the center of a custody dispute. It’s not that either of his parents want him – they just don’t want the other to have him. With the vitriol between the parents, Paul has become a pawn ripe for kidnapping and Spenser is hired to protect him.
Protecting Paul, however, becomes more to Spenser than keeping him safe for a short time. Spenser obligates himself into finding a way to protect Paul long-term – as in for the rest of his quite miserable life.
Paul is a social misfit both mentally and physically. He’s not just a nerd, and he’s way beyond a slacker. There is little hope for him as a human being if the path he’s on doesn’t change soon. However, he has none of the skills or motivations needed to rescue himself, and there’s nobody else in his life who isn’t too self-centered to have anything to offer.
Enter Spenser’s code – autonomy. Spenser understands autonomy. He knows he can offer the kid only a crash course in self-awareness, but somehow he has to make it stick. Virtually, kidnapping Paul himself, Spenser devotes a summer to teaching him to box, to weight lift, and the skills needed to build a house in a remote area – all of this teaching self-worth. These are skills Spenser was taught on his own road to autonomy, and he believes it is his duty to pass them on.
The mystery here is not so much about solving a case, but about solving life’s bad situations – a form to which Parker often returns. With help from Hawk, Spenser sets Paul on a path to be able to break himself away from his self-destructive parents, leaving Spenser as a sort of unofficial ward.
It is through this unconventional mystery set up – the solving of the life situation taking precedent over the solving of the relatively simple mystery – that Parker begins to change the face of the hardboiled novel. The character of Spenser becomes vested in his code. No longer can it be something that only works for him. The code must be important enough and versatile enough to work for Paul – the complete antithesis of Spenser. If Paul fails to evolve, then Spenser has failed, his code has failed, and everything he honors becomes less. If Spenser fails with Paul, he faces his own self-destruction.
Parker’s power as a writer is not just in the sound of the words on the page (to steal one of his own phrases), but in the echoes of those words – what is said while unsaid. This is Parker’s legacy – to make the reader see possibilities and realities beyond the simple story in which they are caught.
To read Parker is to hear the beauty of his words on the page, and allow that beauty, like the melody of a great song, to effortlessly deliver on both the conscious and subconscious level.
There have been many imitators, and there will continue to be many more. Parker, however, used imitation to become an original – a trick as rare as the failure of his code.