Decision making, Spenser style

From Robert B. Parker’s Cold Service:

You need to know what you know, what you don’t know, and what you have to know. And you need to have it in mind. You need to know what part of what you want to do can be done now, and what needs to wait, and what it needs to wait for. Is there anything you don’t understand in this situation? Anything missing?

From Chapter 34, page 157 in my edition.

Everybody knows Parker’s detective Spenser, and I’ve quoted him before on this blog. I copied out this quote on the back of a postcard and have it propped up on my desk, next to my kid calendar. I appreciate it because it sets out a decision-making process.

I wouldn’t say that I spend my day making more decisions than the average worker bee, but perhaps it’s that I spend more time thinking about the decisions I make than the average worker bee. So any kind of guidelines to decision making are welcome; that’s why it’s propped up on the desk.

More interestingly, Parker wrote the quote, he’s a writer and was focused on putting words together, slapping covers and a generic title on them, and moving on to the next one. But the words come out of the mouth of Spenser, his detective. Consider therefore the research necessary to fully inhabit the world of Spenser. Research is more than just having a sea captain inform you about the tides in San Francisco Bay, as Isabel Allende did for her novel Ripper, which I just finished reading. It also includes research into motivations and styles of work.

Consider wondering how fully does the novel’s protagonist think like the kind of person he or she is supposed to be. This is obviously most applicable to crime novels, as the detective is often a professional detective.

‘I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt,’ Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open


But this cold will pass. The woodlice will come out of the walls again with the spring rain; the snails will sail slowly through the young weeds on the path. There will be warm, wet mornings dark with cloud, and I’ll be out with my plastic bag and a stick to get a free dinner of snails, the petit gris. I’ll put them to fast for nine days with a sprig of thyme, then clean them till they spit with vinegar and salt, boil them out of their shells and cut the shit off them, then do a cold garlic butter with parsley and eat them off the special plates that Margo bought in the market. I shall eat them by candlelight and pretend it’s a dinner party. [Derek Raymond, He Died With His Eyes Open, Chapter 17]

…I soon found number eighteen; it was the door that banged in the dark wind and had a pile of costermongers’ garbage three feet high beside it. The door banged because it didn’t lock, and it didn’t lock because the traders used the street-level passageway for parking their barrows and empty crates. I stood at the foot of the stairs in the gloom for a minute, then got my flashlight out—where would anybody be in modern London without one? I looked for a push button to light the cement stairs that yawned in front of me; there was one, but it didn’t work. On the inside of the street door was a wire basket full of mail. It looked like disagreeable mail, the kind that arrives in buff envelopes, and evidently nobody ever read it, because it looked as if it had been there a long time. [Chapter 20]

‘But you weren’t prepared to try the famous knack on anybody else, were you? No, because anyone with any balls would have told you to fuck off, and you’d have burst into tears, just like you’re about to do with me. You’re like a sinister little boy, Eric; every time the beastly horrid sand-castle falls in you burst out crying and try and kick someone smaller than you are. I bet you think of yourself as the detritus of your society—it’s a good excuse for a wallow in self-pity. But all you are, Eric, is just a wanker.’ [Chapter 20]

I’m still working my way through Derek Raymond’s He Died With His Eyes Open, but I had to post these three, coming so closely on top of one another (all three within 20 pages) as they did, and each one so perfect in its own way. I’d unexpectedly come upon this Derek Raymond book at a different branch library, so after the week before last’s pleasure at reading How The Dead Live, I couldn’t leave it be but had to borrow it.

Aux escargots! To the first passage we go. How do you tell a poor man? He’s someone who can’t afford a long word. Out of the 128 words I’ve quoted, there’s only two of three or more syllables: vinegar and candlelight. It’s not the book’s narrator who’s talking, it’s the victim, quoted speaking on an audio tape he left behind. A regular clue.

But the only clue you get out of this passage is how exquisitely close his life is to the bone of subsistence, and yet how much pleasure he derives out of the search for nourishment. Even though his life (as described earlier in the chapter) has been reduced to cycling through one punishing task after another in order to ward off complete destitution, he still envisions waiting more than a week to completely prepare for a nice dinner. It’s left for the reader to decide whether he would actually let the little gastropods alone for nine days, or just skewer and roast them that first spring evening.

The second quote is delivered by the book’s nameless protagonist, a police officer (naturally). Describing the desolation of a squat through the mail that it receives is a stroke of genius, and to me a peculiarly English one; I can’t imagine Bill Pronzini’s nameless San Francisco detective nailing the exact color of envelope that “disagreeable mail” comes in, but the descriptor evokes for me both the desperation of the departed tenants to whom the mail is addressed, as well as the liberation of the current crop of squatters living there, who pay no attention to the mail basket because their names aren’t known to creditors, yet.

And the third quote I tossed in because you’re like me, and you always wondered what exactly a “wanker” was. Now we know, right?
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Robert B. Parker, “Rough Weather”

The frustrating thing about Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels is that lines like these come up all too often:

‘We both live in worlds where the cynicism is age-old and millennium-deep,’ Ives said. ‘We are both cynical, and with good reason. But you are not cynical, Lochinvar. I find it refreshing.’

Who speaks like this? Even a malicious evil genius wouldn’t speak like that.
But then a couple pages later:

The headmistress was a tall, slim woman who looked a little like Charles de Gaulle.


Lazy afternoon

It wasn’t like swimming through molasses, rather a pleasant diversion
from exertion, like a local anesthetic is a diversion from pain. The
day was sunny and brisk, with the wind out of the north. I just didn’t
go that fast, is all. It was a day for sailing gently along, like the
five parachutists I watched drifting out of the sky, their round wings
rocking them gently to the ground not five hundred meters to my left.
Would they want to proceed any faster? I certainly did not.

 To place the capstone on the lassitudinous afternoon, I finished up
Janwillem van der Wettering’s Tumbleweed one of his better
Grijpstra-and-de-Gier mystery novels. There was a whole cache of such
I found in a spare room last month, and I’ve been reading them
serially, on the theory that if one is mildly amusing, five will
provide days of mild amusement, just the thing I’m longing for. I had
read a bunch back about 10 years ago, borrowed from the Brooklyn
Public Library. I had forgotten that they are crime novels that have
nothing to do with crime. Someone is killed brutally, then Grijpstra
and de Gier and their boss, the commissaris (who is never given a
name), talk to the friends and acquaintances of the victim and
eventually come up with a criminal, who in all books of the series is
uniformly urbane and sympathetic. Guilt is assigned, but it’s all so
existential! The crime just happened, just like the cops were there to
solve it, just like the parachutists fell out of the sky.

Quote for the commonplace book 003

“We’ve been on a lot of cases together, Lewis–with lots of people
involved; but I don’t reckon the motives are ever all that
different–love, hate, jealousy, revenge….”

 Inspector Morse, in Colin Dexter’s The Secret of Annexe 3, 1986

 This about sums up why not to read mystery novels. What’s
changed since the days of Holmes and Watson?