Sensor Scan: Spenser: For Hire

Spenser: For Hire

While Miami Vice remained technically a crime drama about policework, it was much more a staunchly deconstructionist work that went out of its way to problematize its genre as much as it did the social structure it was going out into. Spenser: For Hire, uh, isn’t.

Based on a series of “hard-broiled” detective stories by Robert B. Parker, Spenser: For Hire chronicles the exploits of the titular private investigator Spenser and the hired gun Hawk who, while they occasionally operate on opposite sides of the law, both live their lives by a firm code of ethics and principles and respect each other’s decisions. This is pretty much the extent of the premise here, the rest of the series amounting to your basic “hard-broiled” tropes and cliches. In both the books and the TV show, Spenser narrates over everything in a dramatic monologue about tough choices and hard life on the street and absolutely everything you would expect a character in this kind of story to be talking about. Parker is pretty blatantly following in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler here, by which I mean blatantly trying to ape, to the point Spenser has been read as essentially a carbon copy of Chandler’s famous Private Eye Phillip Marlowe. Those parts of Spenser that don’t come from Marlowe come from Parker himself, with whom he shares a suspicious number of biographical details, both having served in the Korean War and hailing from Boston.

As a result, the Spenser series becomes this sort of rambling treatise on Parker’s life philosophy as filtered through a response to Chandler, in particular how it pertains to what constitutes a virtuous and honourable man. It’s a lot of manly speechifying about manly men doing manly things, and I confess I found myself growing pretty exasperated pretty quickly. I mean, it’s not the worst thing ever: Spenser is educated, well-read, enjoys traditionally cultured things like ballet and poetry and traditionally feminine things like cooking (it’s a passion of his, in fact). There’s also a surprising amount of extremely positive and diverse portrayals of gay males in the series, considering this was the 1970s and 1980s, likely owing to the fact Parker’s two sons were openly homosexual. But, Spenser rolls his eyes at feminism in the earliest books and even later on, with the debatable exception of his significant other Susan Silverman, women are background bit players. And oh yeah, Spenser is also a heavyweight boxer, a decorated war hero, can kick anyone’s ass into next week, never, ever takes damage or breaks a sweat and *all* the girls want him, you guys.

Yes, Spenser would absolutely be decried as a Mary Sue if he was a woman, and this touches on the fundamental problem with this so-called “hard-broiled” noir stuff. The whole crux of Chandler’s argument against the Agatha Christie school of dime-store mysteries were that they were unrealistic and inauthentic escapism, and he’s right, but what is the tradition he himself spawned except escapism for a specific sort of romanticized male power fantasy?…

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