Most critics agree that the first five books in the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker are his best. Looking for Rachel Wallace is the sixth in the series, but it’s one of my favorite Spenser books, along with Early Autumn, which is number seven.
Rachel Wallace is a feminist, a lesbian, and an author whose publisher hires Spenser to act as her bodyguard after she receives a death threat. Rachel detests everything that Spenser stands for and eventually fires him. Yet when she is kidnapped, Spenser feels compelled to find her. Spenser follows a code of chivalry in which a damsel in distress must be rescued, even if she doesn’t want to be. (There are many references to Lancelot, Galahad and other Arthurian knights.) I enjoy the way Parker shows us Spenser’s discomfort with a woman who doesn’t find him or his macho ways attractive.
There is very little mystery here: it’s fairly obvious who has kidnapped Rachel. Nonetheless, it’s fun to follow Spenser on his quest. Spenser’s significant other, Susan Silverman is on hand to explain Rachel to Spenser and Spenser to Rachel, but Spenser’s sidekick Hawk is only mentioned once or twice and does not appear. (Hawk had only been introduced to the series two books earlier, so perhaps Parker had not yet figured out how valuable a character he was.)
For readers familiar with Boston, many of the place names will conjure up fondly remembered images, but a person who has never been to that city will find little sense of place here. There is, however, a witty rant about the new (in 1980) Boston Public Library facade, as well as a nice scene in which the city is shut down by a blizzard so that Spenser must go on foot for several miles to find Rachel.
There are also some painfully funny scenes with Rachel sitting impatiently through a poorly-attended booksigning and being interviewed by a talk show host who has obviously not read her book. Most authors will groan in sympathy with her even as they are forced to smile at Parker’s wit.
Looking for Rachel Wallace also reminds us how far both the feminist and the gay rights movements have come in the last thirty years. It’s a nice slice of the late 1970s as well as a good read.