Valediction is a compellingly offbeat mid-80s entry from Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series.
Enduring an unwanted separation from Susan Silverman, Spenser is at emotional loose ends when he takes the case of a choreographer who insists that a controversial religious sect has kidnapped his dancer girlfriend. Spencer’s sympathy for and desire to help the young woman put him on a collision course with a local drug kingpin, but also blind him to some important realities that could have deadly consequences.
Valediction is a good example of a writer using the accumulated character and story developments of a mature series to add heft and depth to an otherwise standard issue plot. The “rescue a potentially misused young woman from a situation that’s not as it seems” was something Parker had deployed multiple times in the Spenser series to that point. But rather than coming off as a retread, the novel wound up being oddly affecting.
Parker always demonstrated a fascination for his lead character’s psychology, whether it was working out his distinctive moral code or exploring the nuances of his various relationships. In Valediction, Parker took advantage of years of exploring Spenser’s quirky psyche to dramatize the existential crisis, if not outright depression, Spenser endured via by Susan’s abrupt decampment. The Spenser/Susan relationship was the real engine of this book, far more so than the actual crimes on hand. While she appeared in barely a handful of pages, Susan and her choices loomed large over the proceedings. They informed Spenser’s state of mind and his reactions to his love interest’s moves are crucial at several points in the novel. It was a hallmark of Parker’s confidence in his series that he allowed a fan favorite character like Susan to behave so unsympathetically, though it also humanized her, adding some scuff marks to a character that could occasionally come off as too perfect. If Parker’s musings on the nature of love and the difficulties of committed monogamy occasionally veered too far in the direction of gooey New Age philosophizing, overall the focus on his characters’ inner lives elevated Valediction above the standard detective novel.
Parker made good use of Spenser’s other established relationships (best friend Hawk, surrogate son Paul, his police allies) and even paid off what had seemed like nothing more than a throwaway interaction with a neighbor from a previous installment. Also playing a large part were the events of earlier book A Savage Place, whose ramifications had been simmering under the surface of the series in the intervening chapters.
It wasn’t all psychological despair, of course. Valediction featured some of Parker’s trademark crime set pieces, most impressively a fraught cat-and-mouse sequence that found an undergunned Spenser taking on a quintet of hired killers in an urban gravel pit. Mixed with some solid scenes of Spenser plying the actual trade of detection and some well-done “law and order” moments, there’s plenty here to keep the average crime fiction fan happy.
Valediction is not an entry point for new readers, without the crucial background of the earlier parts of the series, these events won’t have the necessary impact. But for those who have read the previous entries in the Spenser series, it provides a strong pay-off.