My only complaint when I started reading Robert Parker’s ‘Spenser’ series came in the first book, “The Godwulf Manuscript” when Spenser, crossing a college quad, described in great detail the clothing of several students he passed. For nearly two pages Parker shared the early seventies fashion to be found on a college campus, displayed by characters without names or purpose or bearing in any way on the story at all, and when I started the second book in the series, “God Save the Child”, it seemed I was in for more of the same.
Maybe it was that this was the second book and with that came a growing appreciation or familiarity with Parker’s writing style, but I started to understand why this was the case and why it had to be. Spenser narrates these stories and he’s as clever and sharp-witted as any private detective from the days of Chandler and Hammett, and big enough to get away with having a smart mouth if the guys he’s mouthing off to can keep up and realize he’s insulting them.
But where Parker goes into exhaustingly more detail then the classics of detective fiction is less about sloppy or tedious writing. In order to put us in his detective’s shoes, he has to also put us in his detective’s head.
It took Spenser just about explaining this to his love interest in “God Save the Child” for me to understand as well, so I clearly don’t make a very good detective. Spenser, on the other hand, is good at what he does specifically because he notices and remembers everything. He sees a person’s shoes and remembers their pants, the color of socks and shirt and jacket, the cut and color of hair and whether the glasses were prescription or just for show, and whether they matched the rest of the outfit as well; and he does this for every person he passes, everyone he comes across from the moment he meets a client because any one of these people may be a part of his case, and he may need that information later.
Spenser isn’t a hero or a supercop or some action star. He’s just the guy working a small-time case trying to figure out where someone or something went and whether it needed to be returned once he found it. In the course of this he’ll tell you what he made for breakfast and describe his workout routine, and you might even be able to cook a pork tenderloin en croûte if you pay attention.
Robert Parker understands that this is tedious work, undertaken by the kind of man willing to notice details and keep each and every one of them tucked away for the moment he will need to put those pieces together the right way. From an author’s perspective, to realistically write such a tedious undertaking itself needs to become tedious.
This writing and narrative style that at first turned me off of Robert Parker is precisely what takes the reader more completely into the world and mind of a private detective than any author has before. He does this not by hinting at the details the reader should remember or teasing the threads that will be important later, but by immersing the audience in the overwhelming detail of the world and letting them sift through to identify the important parts alongside the narrator. It’s this style that makes the Spenser series so intriguing, and interesting to continue reading.
An article I came across about a secret ballroom built in the 19th century beneath a lake piqued my curiosity and led me to search out more information and photographs about this incredibly intriguing hidden marvel. The history of Whitaker Wright, his property at Lea Park where the underwater ballroom is located, his shady business deals and eventual suicide when his deception was uncovered seems ripe to transform into any number of plotlines and stories.
While gathering information for my own story (one that leans more towards Lovecraft than Agatha Christie), I found the Facebook page for “The Folly Under the Lake”. It hadn’t been released yet and I kind of dismissed it, but as I kept writing and tinkering and going back to search for new information, it kept popping up until finally I bought it.
To be honest, I underestimated “The Folly Under the Lake”. I didn’t expect to enjoy it and maybe I didn’t want to, so at first, I didn’t.
Initially, I was put off by being thrust into the story through two characters who seemed set up to be a secondary, annoying couple you pity but deep down can’t stand. From there, too many characters were introduced too quickly where I got to the point I didn’t care who was talking anymore and had no interest in trying to keep them apart.
But I kept reading and they kept talking. And talking. And there was a lot of dialogue. But then I told myself to stop trying to hate the book, to stop trying to look for what was wrong. I would read a couple chapters and put it down, read a couple more the next night, and during the fourth day, when I was six or seven chapters in, I found myself excited for later when I would get to pick it up and read some more.
While this was not a great book, it nevertheless had me hooked.
Whether it was my interest in the underwater ballroom itself or curiosity over how Walter would be killed, and whether I was right about who did it (I wasn’t), I was excited to keep reading it, pacing myself as I did to tease the story out.
Could “The Folly Under the Lake” have benefited from deeper characterization and more thorough descriptions to build up of this incredible setting? Definitely. The book synopsis says the story is set in the 1930s, but I didn’t feel there was anything in the text itself to establish that. Given that the historical basis for the setting and characters is rooted at the turn of the 20th century, with Whitaker Wright committing suicide in 1904, my knowledge of the background and the claims from the synopsis were always at odds and that left me with a feeling of inconsistency that more attention to setting by the author could have avoided.
But ultimately, it was a fun read and I enjoyed more than I expected I would. The book did exactly as it needed to keep the reader engaged and moving forward through this little murder mystery, offering up valid suspects in each of the characters that kept you excited to read on and solve the crime.
After a break in my Amos Walker reading–a break far longer than anyone should be comfortable with–Sinister Heights was a great episode in the case files of the first private detective I know of capable of diagraming sentences while getting his head bounced off walls by union lackeys and illegitimate children alike to pick up with.
Walker is old school and has the cheap Scotch and quick, sarcastic comebacks to prove it; but the work that comes by a private detective as the Motor City crawls into the 21st century is dwindling. If it wasn’t for the sins and vicious legacies of men like Leland Stutch, who built the automotive industry, he might be out of work altogether.
This may be Loren Estleman’s fifteenth Amos Walker book, and while he may be bringing back old characters (and killing off new and old ones alike) his love of Detroit, Walker’s sarcasm, and the gritty, no-nonsense rendering of a flawed world and its struggling inhabitants, are as strong as ever.
If you’re a fan of hardboiled mysteries, smart-assed private detectives or stories set in the Rust Belt, go back and take a look at Motor City Blue, the first of Estleman’s Amos Walker series. I wasn’t so sure when I bought that first book from Motor City Books, but before I even finished it I had gone back to buy the next three in the series…