"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Thursday, May 21, 2020

God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker (1974)

A catcher in the rye

God Save the Child is a lean and tight kidnap thriller that allows Spenser to right a number of wrongs, cook at least one amazing dinner, and woo high school guidance councillor Susan Silverman.

God Save the Child is light years ahead of The Godwulf Manuscript. No counterculture antagonists, just suburban middle class family miseries of the old Ross Macdonald type, updated to the gay-friendly tempo of 1970s U.S.A. 

Excerpts below. 

But read and savor the novel.

....At eight the next morning I was out jogging along the Charles. From the concert shell on the Esplanade to the BU Bridge was two miles, and I always tried to make the round trip in about forty minutes. It was never fun, but this morning was tougher than usual because it was raining like hell. Usually there were other joggers, but this morning I was alone. I had on sweat pants and a hooded nylon shell, but the rain soaked my sneakers and needled at my face as I ran. Walking back up Arlington Street to my apartment on Marlborough, I could feel the sweat collect in the small of my back, trapped there by the waterproof parka.

Before I'd left I'd put the coffee on, and it was ready when I came back. But I didn't drink it-yet. First a shower.

A long time under the shower, a lot of soap, a lot of shampoo. I shaved very carefully, standing in the shower—I'd put a mirror in the stall just so I could do that—and rinsed off thoroughly. I put on a pair of light gray slacks and black over-the-ankle boots and went to the kitchen.

I sliced two green tomatoes, sprinkled them with black pepper and rosemary, shook them in flour, and put them in about a half-inch of olive oil to fry. I put a small porterhouse steak under the broiler and got a loaf of unleavened Syrian bread out of the refrigerator While the steak and tomatoes cooked, I drank my first cup of coffee, cream, two sugars and ate a bowl of blackberries I'd bought at a farm stand coming back from the Cape with a girl I knew. When it was ready, I ate my breakfast, put the dishes in the washer, washed my hands and face, clipped my gun on over my right hip pocket, put on a washed blue denim shirt with short sleeves, and let it hang outside to cover the gun. I was ready, exercised, washed, fed, and armed—alert for the slightest sign of a dragon. I had a white trench coat given me once by a friend. She said it made me look taller. I put it on now and headed for my car.

....When I got home the Amstel beer was still there in the refrigerator, a gift from a girl who knew the way to my heart. I popped the cap off a bottle and drank half of it.

     Jesus, the Dutch knew how to live. I remembered a cafe in a hotel in Amsterdam where Amstel was the house beer. I finished the beer, opened another, drank some while I got undressed, put it on the sink while I took a shower, finished it while I toweled off.

     I went to the kitchen in my shorts, opened a third bottle, picked up the phone, and called information. I got Susan Silverman's number and called her Her voice sounded very educated on the phone. She said, "Hello." I said, "Help."

     She said, "I beg your pardon?" I said, "I am in desperate need of guidance. Do you make house calls?"

     She said, "Who is this?" I said, "How quickly they forget. Spenser. You remember… proud carriage, clear blue eyes that never waver, intrepid chin, white raincoat that makes me look taller?"

     And she said, "Oh, that Spenser."

     "I know it's late," I said, "but I'm about to cook a pork tenderloin en croute and wondered if you would be willing to eat some of it while we talk more about Kevin Bartlett."

     She was silent. "I'm a hell of a cook," I said. "Not much of a detective, have some trouble locating my own Adam's apple, don't have much success with kidnapping victims, but I'm a hell of a cook."

     "Mr. Spenser, it's five thirty. I was just about to put my own supper in the oven."

     "I'll come out and get you if you wish," I said. "If you'd rather I'll buy you dinner."

     "No," she said. I could almost hear her make up her mind. "I'll come in. What is your address?"

     "Do you know Where Marlborough Street is?" I asked.


     "Okay, I'm in the last block before you get to the Public Garden." I gave her the number. "It's on the left-hand side.

     How long will it take you?"

     "Would seven thirty be all right?"

     "Just right," I said. "I'll look for you then."

     She said good-bye and we hung up. "Ha!" I said out loud. I drank down the rest of my beer to celebrate. Still got the old sex appeal, kid, still got all the old moves. She couldn't resist me. Or maybe she just liked pork tenderloin en croute.

     I turned on the oven to preheat, took the pork out of the meatkeeper to warm up, and set about making the crust. I opened another Amstel. Better watch it, though; didn't want to be drunk when she got here. It was, after all, business, or partly business. I made a very short crust and laid the tenderloin across it. I sprinkled in some thyme, some black pepper, and a dust of dill. I rolled the crust carefully around it and put it on a roasting pan. I brushed a little egg white on the top to glaze it and put it in a medium oven.

     I peeled and sliced three green apples, some carrots, and some red onions. I added a lump of butter and put them to simmer in about an inch of cider in a tightly covered sauce pan. I made a Cumberland sauce for the pork. Then I went to get dressed. I decided against a gold lame smoking jacket and white silk scarf. Instead I put on a black polo shirt and white trousers with a modest flare. I put on my black loafers, still shined, and walked up Arlington Street two blocks to Boylston and bought two loaves of hot French bread from a bake shop. Then I walked back to my apartment and put a bottle of red wine in the wine bucket, opened it to let it breathe, and packed it in ice. I knew that was bad—I was supposed to roll it on my palate at room temperature, but once a hick, always a hick, I guess. I liked it cold.

....She smiled her thanks at me. "So, sticking your nose into things and getting it broken allows you to live life on your own terms, perhaps."

"Having a nice time?" Susan asked.

     "It's better than getting bitten by a great white shark," I said.

     "Oh, it's not that bad. In fact, you kind of like it. I've been watching you. You look at everything; you listen to everybody. I bet you know what everyone in the kitchen is talking about and what they look like. They fascinate you."

     "Yeah," I said, "I'm into people."

     "Oh, you're such a big tough guy, and you think you're funny, but I'll bet if that fool with the confidence courses got in trouble, you'd get him out of it."

     "A catcher in the rye," I said.

     "You're being smart, I know, but that's right. That's exactly what you are. You are exactly that sentimental."

"He appeared to be patting you on the hip," I said.

     "That's why you came over." Susan smiled and shook her head. "Were you prepared to defend my virtue?"

     "I'm in pursuit of it myself, and I don't like poachers."

     "He's a very big man in this town," Susan said. "Board of Selectmen, Conservation Commission, adviser to the Board of Health, used to be Planning Board chairman. All the best people have him when they're sick."

     "He's a hip patter," I said.

     "Very wealthy," she said. "Very big house."

     "Pushy bastard," I said.

     "I wonder what it is in women," she said. "Whenever they find a big strong guy with a wide adolescent streak running through him, they get a powerful urge to hold his head in their laps."

     "Right here?" I said.

     "About now I think we could probably marry and raise a family here without anyone noticing."

     She was right. It looked like a Busby Berkeley production of Dante's Inferno. To my left in the dining room the food was scattered on the table and floor. The platters were nearly empty, and the tablecloth was stained and littered with potato salad, cole slaw, miniature meatballs, tomato sauce, mustard, ham scraps, ring tabs, ashes, and things unrecognizable. The detritus of jollity.

     The hockey coach had departed, but his buddy remained, red-eyed and nearly motionless, in his oversized right hand a can of beer, and a platoon, perhaps a company, of its dead companions in silent formation on the highboy beside him.

     His wife was speaking sharply to him with no effect.

     Marge Bartlett was back on the couch between two of the business types in the razor-styled haircuts and the double knit suits. She was talking thickly, her mouth loose and wet, an iceless drink in her right hand, her left rubbing the thigh of one of the men. As she talked, the two men exchanged grins behind her head, and one of them rolled his eyes upward and stuck his tongue out of the left corner of his mouth.

[Vic Harroway]

The girl finished her Twinkie as we reached her and washed it down with the rest of the Coke.

     "Good morning," I said.

     She looked at me without expression, inhaled most of her filter tip cigarette, and without taking it from her mouth, let the smoke out through her nose. Then she yelled, "Vic."

     The screen door behind her scraped open—one hinge was loose—and out he came. Susan Silverman put her hand on my arm.

     "You were right," I said. "He is unusual, isn't he?"

     Vic Harroway was perhaps five ten, three inches shorter than I, and twenty pounds heavier. Say, 215. He was a body builder, but a body builder gone mad. He embodied every excess of body building that an adolescent fantasy could concoct. His hair was a bright cheap blond, cut straight across the forehead in a Julius Caesar shag. The muscles in his neck and chest were so swollen his skin looked as if it would burst over them. There were stretch marks pale against his dark tan where the deltoid muscles drape over the shoulder and stretch marks over his biceps and in the rigid valley between his pectoral muscles. His abdominal muscles looked like cobblestones. The white shorts were slit up the side to accommodate his thigh muscles. They too showed stretch marks. My stomach contracted at the amount of effort he'd expended, the number of weights he'd lifted to get himself in this state.

     He said, "What do you turds want?" Down home hospitality.

     I said, "We're looking for Walden Pond, you glib devil you."

     "Well there aren't no Walden Pond around here, so screw."

     "I just love the way your eyes snap when you're angry," I said.

     "If you came out here looking for trouble, you're gonna find it, Jack. Take your slut and get your ass out of here, or I'll bend you into an earring."

     I looked at Susan Silverman. "Slut?" I said.

     Harroway said, "That's right. You don't like it? You want to make something out of it?" He jumped lightly off the steps and landed in front of me, maybe four feet away, slightly crouched. I could feel Susan Silverman lean back, but she didn't step back. A point for her A point for me too, because as Harroway landed I brought my gun out, and as he went into his crouch he found himself staring into its barrel. I held it straight out in front of me, level with his face.

     "Let's not be angry with each other, Vic. Let us reason together," I said.

     "What the hell is this? What do you want?"

     "I am looking for a boy named Kevin Bartlett. I came out here to ask if you'd seen him."

     "I don't know anybody named Kevin Bartlett."

     "How about the young lady," I asked, still looking at Harroway. "Do you know Kevin Bartlett?"

     "No." I heard a match strike and smelled the cigarette smoke as she lit up. Imperturbable.

     The generator in the garage whined on. The dog had found a bone and was crunching on it vigorously. There was color on Harroway's cheekbones; he looked as if he had a fever. I was stymied. I wanted to search the place, but I didn't want to turn my back on Harroway. I didn't want to have to herd him and the girl around with me. I didn't want Susan out of my sight. I was trespassing, which bothered me a bit. And I had no reason not to believe them. I didn't know who might be in the house or behind it or in the garage.

     "If at first you don't succeed," I said to Susan Silverman, "the hell with it. Come on."

     We backed down the sidewalk to her car and got in.

     Harroway never took his eyes off me as we went. Susan U-turned on the lawn, and we drove away. Another point for Susan. She didn't spin gravel getting out of there.

     She didn't say anything, but I noticed her knuckles were white on the steering wheel. When we got back to Main Street, she pulled over to the side of the road and stopped.

     "I feel sick," she said. She kept her hands on the wheel and stared straight ahead. She was shivering as if it were cold. "My God, what a revolting creature he was. My God!

     Like a… like a rhinoceros or something. A kind of impenetrable brutality."

     I put a hand on her shoulder and didn't say anything.

     We sat maybe two minutes that way. Then she put the car in gear again. "I'm okay," she said.

     "I'll say."

     "What do you think?" she said. "Did you learn anything?"

     I shrugged. "I learned where that place is and what Vic Harroway is like. I don't know if Kevin is there or not."

     "It seemed like an unpleasant experience for nothing," she said.

     "Well, that's my line of work. I go look at things and see what happens. If they were lying, maybe they will do some things because I went there today. Maybe they will make a mistake. The worst thing in any case is when nothing is happening. It's like playing tennis: you just keep returning the ball until somebody makes a mistake. Then you see."

     She shook her head. "What if you hadn't had a gun?"

     "I usually have a gun."

     "But, my God, if you hadn't, or you hadn't reached it in time?"

     "I don't know," I said. "It depends on how good Harroway really is. He looks good. But guys that look like that often don't have to fight. Who's going to start up with them? There's a lot to being strong, but there's a lot to knowing how. Maybe someday we'll find out if Harroway knows how."

     She looked at me and frowned. "You want to, don't you?

     You want to fight him. You want to see if you can beat him."

     "I didn't like that 'slut' remark."

     "Jesus Christ," she said. "You adolescent, you. Do you think it matters to me if someone like Vic Harroway calls me a slut? Next thing you'll challenge him to a duel."

"But to corrupt the police…" 

"Cops are public employees, like teachers and guidance counselors. They tend to give a community what it wants, not always what it should have. I mean, if you happen to go for an evening out with five broads and a goat, and you are a man of some influence, maybe the cops won't prevent it."

[Penultimate climax: Spenser fights man-mountain procuror and bodybuilder villain Vic Harroway, trying to give runaway teenager Kevin Bartlett a way out of what he thinks of as freedom.]

Harroway smiled.

     "I'm going to beat your man, Kevin, so you'll know it can be done. Then I'm going to let you decide."

     Marge Bartlett said, "He can't decide. He's not old enough." No one paid any attention. Harroway gently took Kevin's shoulders and moved him out of the way. "Watch this, Kev. It won't take long." He shrugged his shoulders forward, and the triceps swelled out at the back of his upper arms. "Come and get it, Spenser."

     I wasn't paying attention to his arms. I was watching his feet. If he set up as if he knew what he was doing, I might be in some trouble. We both knew I couldn't out muscle him. He stood with his feet spread, flat-footed in a slight crouch. Good. He didn't know what he was doing.

     Sometimes an iron freak will get hung up on karate and kung fu, or sometimes they're wrestlers. Harroway was none of those. If I could keep my concentration, and if he didn't get hold of me, I had him.

     I shuffled toward him. The ground was dry and firm. I had a lot of room. We were in the middle of the football field. A few people had begun to gather in along the sidewalk and a couple in the stands. They were uneasy, looking at the trouble. We who are about to die salute you. I was dressed for the work; I had on sneakers and Levi's jeans, my Stakeout clothes. I put a left jab on Harroway's nose. He grabbed at me, and I moved out. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Come to think of it, he wasn't champ anymore, was he? Harroway swung on me with his right hand. Better and better. I let it go by, stepped in behind it, and drove two hard right-hand punches into his kidneys; hitting the muscle web of the latissimus dorsi under his rib cage was like hitting a chain link fence. I moved back away from him. He grazed me with his left fist, and I hit him in the nose again. It started to bleed. I hoped Marge Bartlett was pleased. The silence in the open field seemed thunderous.

     The sound of a helicopter, probably one of the traffic reporters, made the silence seem more thunderous by contrast. The helicopter bothered my concentration. Watch his middle, watch his feet, let peripheral vision take care of his fists, he can't fake with his middle. Stay away. Don't let him get hold of you. I tried a combination. Left jab, left hook, right cross. It worked. I scored on all three. But no one was counting. Harry Balleau wasn't going to jump into the ring at the end and raise my hand. If we clinched, Artie Donovan wasn't going to jump in and make sure we broke clean. There was a mouse starting under Harroway's right eye. I circled him counterclockwise. Moving my hands in front of me, shuffling, keeping my left foot forward. Don't get caught walking. Don't let him get you between steps.

     Shuffle, jab, one two, shuffle, jab, one two. Move in. Move out. I was way ahead on points. But Harroway didn't seem to be weakening. He lunged at me. I moved out of the way and got him With the side of my fist on the temple. Don't break your hand. Don't hit his head with your knuckles.

     Shuffle, move. Jab. The sweat began to slip down my chest and arms; it felt good. I was getting looser and quicker.

     Ought to warm up really. Should do some squat jumps and stretching exercises before you have a fight with a 215-pound body builder who probably killed a guy with his fist last week. Harroway was breathing a little short. I gave him a dip with my right shoulder, went left, and dug my left fist into his stomach. He grunted. He got hold of my shoulder with his left hand. I twisted in toward him and came up under his jaw with the heel of my right hand. His head jolted back. I hammered him in the Adam's apple with the edge of the same hand. He made a choking sound. I rolled on out away from him, breaking the grip on my shoulder as I did, and brought my left elbow back against his cheekbone with the full weight of my rolling 195 behind it. He went down. I heard Kevin gasp. Harroway was halfway up when I finished my roll and kicked him in the face. I sprawled him over on his side. He kept going, rolled over, and came up.

     Maybe I was just making him mad. There was a lot of blood on his face and shirt now. Besides his nose, there was a cut under the eye where the mouse had been. The eye was almost closed. The right side of his face where my elbow had caught him was beginning to puff. He seemed to have trouble breathing. I wondered if I'd broken something in the neck. He came at me. I went to work on the other eye. Two jabs, a left hook. Move away, circle. Concentrate. Don't let him grab you. Don't let him tag you. Concentrate. Move.

     Jab. He swung a right roundhouse, and I caught it on my forearm. The whole arm went numb, and I back pedaled out of range waiting for it to recover. Better not let that happen again. Harroway kept coming. His face was bloody. One eye was shut and the other closing. His breathing was hoarse and labored, but he kept coming on. I felt a tickle of fear in my stomach. What if I couldn't stop him? Never mind what if I couldn't. Think about jabbing and moving.

     Concentrate. Don't think things that don't help. Don't think at all. Concentrate. I jabbed the closing eye. Harroway grunted in pain. He was having trouble seeing. I hit the same eye again. There was a cut on the eyebrow, and the blood was blinding him. He stood still. Weaving a little.

     Like a buffalo, with his head lowered. I stepped away from him.

     "Stop it, Harroway," I said.

     He shook his head and lunged toward the sound of my voice. I moved away and hit him a left hook in the neck.

     "Stop it, you goddamned fool," I said.

     He came at me again. I stepped in toward him like a lineman on a pass rush and came up against the side of his head with my forearm, my whole body behind it, driving off my legs. Harroway straightened up and fell over on his back without a sound. The shock of the impact tingled the length of my arm and up into my shoulder. No one said anything.

     Kevin stood by himself opposite his mother and father with Harroway between them lying on his back in the sun.

     Kevin said, "Don't, Vic. Get up. Don't quit. Don't let him beat you. Don't quit."

     "He didn't quit, kid, he's hurt. Anybody can be hurt."

     "He let you beat him."

     "No. He couldn't stop me. But there's no shame in that.

     It's just something I know how to do better than he does.

     He's a man, kid. I think he's a no-good sonova bitch. But he didn't quit. He went as far as he could, for you. In fact he went a lot farther than he could, for you. So did your mother and father."

     Now that it was over I was shaky. My shirt was soaked with sweat. My arms trembled and my legs felt weak. I took the bullets out of my pants pocket and reloaded the gun while I talked. "How far have you gone for anybody lately?"

     The boy still looked at Harroway. In the distance I heard a siren. Somebody had called for the buzzers, and here they came. Kevin started to cry. He stood looking at Harroway and cried with his hands straight down by his side.

     "I don't know what to do," he said. Roger Bartlett got his feet under him and stood up. He put out his hand and helped his wife up. He fumbled a handkerchief out of his hip pocket and gave it to her, and she held it against her still-leaky nose. The two of them stood looking at Kevin who stood crying. Then Marge Bartlett said, "Oh, honey," and stepped over Harroway and put her arms around the kid and cried too. Then Bartlett got his arms around both of them and held on for dear life. Harroway sat up, painfully, and hugged his knees and looked at me with his one slightly open eye.

     "Slut?" I said. He looked at me without comprehension.

     I said, "A couple of days ago you called Susan Silverman a slut." He still looked blank. "Never mind," I said.



21 May 2020

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