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Their strength is as the strength of ten

Spenser, as any reader of Robert B. Parker’s most popular detective series can tell you, has no flaws, no vices, no weaknesses.

Spenser himself likes to say, as if he’s joking, that his strength is as the strength of ten because his heart is pure.

Spenser’s no Galahad, but he is a knight in shining armor, worthy of sitting at the Round Table, somehow transported through time to our era.

A lot of readers find him and his books annoying because of this.  If I were to interview Parker, and with luck someday I might, I’d ask him if this criticsim of Spenser, coming either from without or from within---he himself might get tired of writing about a hero so virtuous that his only character flaw is a habit of making bad jokes at the wrong moment---led him to create Jesse Stone, the small town police chief hero of one of his two other detective series.

Stone is flawed.

Over the last generation or so a new tradition has grown up among writers of mysteries and thrillers----the flawed detective-hero, angst-ridden, conscience-striken, ghost-haunted, introspective and moody, scarred by the horrors, evil, and tragedy that they have witnessed and taken part in, prone to self-destructive behavior in their spare time, either actively in the form of making stupid personal decisions or passively in the form of addictions to booze or self-doubt or self-pity.  They are disconnected from friends and family, alienated from any community they nominally belong to, withdrawn, lonely, sad.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the exemplar. I think of P.D. James’ wistful, brooding, poetry-writing Adam Dalgliesh as the prototype, but you could make the case that Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was the first.  Marlowe carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.  He was burdened by some guilt or sadness or both, perhaps connected, that he never explained, but which often made him more melancholy and cynical than the victims of the crimes he was investigating.  Whatever he saw while on a case didn’t make him sad or sick, it just confirmed him in his sadness and malaise.

The new breed of detective novels just make explicit and a part of their plots what Chandler used to give Marlowe his tone of voice.

So along comes Jesse Stone, recovering alcoholic, who drank himself out his job with the LAPD and out of his marriage with the beautiful, vivacious, adoring, but flighty Jen.  Stone now clings to the end of his tether in Paradise, Massachusetts, with a bottle of Bushmills in his bottom drawer calling to him all the time and Jen breezing in and out of his life, twisting him up into emotional knots.

Stone is definitely flawed.

Except that he’s not.

He has weaknesses.  He makes mistakes.  He gives into temptations he wants to resist.  He does “bad” things.

He has “flaws” but he is not flawed because he has no vices.  In that way he is as pure of heart as Spenser.

I’m nearing the end of Sea Change, Parker’s latest Stone novel, and while Jesse has been as maddeningly “flawed” as he was in the previous book I read, Stone Cold, Parker does the same thing he did in that one---he excuses all of Stone’s bad behavior on the grounds that Stone is “a good man.”

We know he’s a good man because all the good female characters are at pains to tell him so.

Some of the bad female characters tell him so too.

And they’re right.  He is good, and all his flaws are excusable.

Stone has flaws but like almost all heroes in contemporary popular entertainment he has no vices.

Stone and those other heroes can make mistakes.  They can goof up.  They can cause trouble for the people they want to help accidentally.  They can give in, for a time, to certain weaknesses, usually self-doubt or anger.

But they can’t sin.

They are allowed to feel as though they have sinned.  But when they do other characters will quickly assure them that they really did the right thing or had no other choice but to do the wrong thing in order to get the right result.

But they can’t actually sin.

I said Spenser was like a knight of the Round Table.  Actually, he’s like only a few of them.  Galahad, Percivale, and Bors, the three who got to see the Grail.

None of the other knights are allowed near the Grail---although Launcelot is granted a vision of it---because they all have sinned.

They are all sinners.  They have vices.  Gawaine is vain and boastful, too quick to anger, and not always as chivalrous as he manages to be with the wife of the Green Knight.  Kay is eaten up with envy and spite.  Launcelot…

Launcelot brings about the destruction of Camelot because he can’t put aside his feelings for his best friend’s wife.

It’s worth noting that in many of the tales Percivale is portrayed as something of a holy fool and Galahad is assumed into heaven---he dies---when he is 17, that is not yet a man.  He’s still a boy.  A child.

It’s as if the lesson of his tale is that the purity of heart that is required of us to get into heaven is only possible for children.  To grow up is to grow corrupt.

But that’s the point.  The stories of the Knights of the Round Table, at least as they are finally tied together and summed up in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, are cautionary tales.

They warn us that even the most heroic among us, those of the greatest virtue are equally capable of vice.  To be human is to be weak.

The Greeks knew this too.  The heroes of the Iliad are all shown at their worst.  Achilles is vain, sullen, selfish, disloyal.  Odysseus is conniving, duplicitous, bloody-minded.  Hector is vacillating.  It’s been a long war and they are all worn down and at the ends of their tethers.

It’s the old lesson:  Heroes are flawed and their flaws are their undoing.

All stories of heroes are---used to be---inherently tragic.

I can’t pinpoint when that view of heroes changed or explain why it did.  But it was still alive enough in the 19th Century when Robert Louis Stevenson came up with Alan Breck Stuart, the swashbuckling hero of Kidnapped and David Balfour.

Alan Breck is vain, boastful, reckless, selfish, and even on occasion cowardly.  He has an instinct for self-preservation that coupled with his reflexive urge to throw himself headlong into a fight makes him a very problematic travelling companion.  He gets David into as much trouble as he gets him out of.

David is the much more virtuous character.  He is level-headed, reliable, self-aware and self-critical.  He is brave and he is resourceful and he can be heroic.  But he is not a hero or the hero of his own books.

It’s as if Stevenson is trying to tell us through David that being good is not just not the same as being heroic, but that it is actually antithetical to it.  That there’s very little that separates a hero from a villain would definitely seem to be one of Stevenson’s theme if you read Kidnapped back to back with The Master of Ballantrae.

There is a separation.  Stevenson isn’t making the anti-heroic point of early 1970s cop movies.  You can tell Stevenson’s good guys from his bad guys, even if like Long John Silver, the bad guy can be charming and likeable.

I’m taking too long to say what I set out to say.  I think something important was lost when the tragic hero disappeared from our storytelling, and the rise of the “flawed” hero isn’t a real or satisfying replacement, especially since so many of the flaws are actually tricks to make us like and admire the hero all the more and forgive him whatever apparently bad things his job calls upon him to do.

There’s a moral lesson to be drawn from this, but there’s probably a political lesson as well.

I doubt it’s been all that good for us as a nation to have spent a hundred years telling ourselves stories in which the hero has no vices and the apparent bad that he does, all his flaws, are really signs of his superior virtue.

Posted by on 05/23 at 08:33 AM
  1. Hawk? Vinny?

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  12:29 PM
  2. Well we are living during that period of media-saturated “rebel-becomes-hero” chic.  It is hard to have tragic and flawed when Stallone, VanDamme, Diesel, or Gibson can compress all that character development into 12 minutes of screen time sandwiched around a couple of hours of senseless violent action.  And with Disney subsidiaries and the Merchant/Ivory brand taking liberties with the tragic heroes and heroines of literature past, subsequent generations will be even further removed.  Maybe that is the tragedy, if not the “problem” (captcha).

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  03:27 PM
  3. Just to further prove the point…
    Actually, I think the Round Table falls due to all the flaws in all its heros. Lancelot is an adulterer, Arthur has begotten Mordred, Gawaine is vengeful and quick to anger, and many of the knights, especially Mordred, are jealous and mean. All those things are their undoing - thye are heroes but they have vices, and their vices destroy them.

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  03:41 PM
  4. You should be watching The Shield if it’s tragic heroes you’re after. The protagonist, Vic Mackey, has shot fellow cops, tortured suspects and informants and witnesses, slept with the emotionally unstable wife of an Internal Affairs detective who was chasing him just so he (Mackey) could rub the guy’s face in it afterward, and much more. It’s one of the best shows ever put on TV.

    Posted by pdf  on  05/23  at  04:50 PM
  5. Harry Flashman?

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  06:49 PM
  6. We can’t have tragic heroes because we are--as a people--too cowardly to face the catharsis of tragedy. And with good reason. If we started crying, we might not ever stop.

    Posted by  on  05/23  at  11:52 PM
  7. oh, nice.  i’m not much of a moviegoer or tv person, but this trend’s been a peeve of mine as long as i’ve been reading.  you’re spot on about the gimmickry, too:  little or imagined flaws blown out of proportion in the protagonist’s mind—basically, the shallow crisis of conscience.  it’s cheap and gets to be a bore.  still, i do think the anti-hero phenomenon lends itself to a modern conceptualization of classical tragedy, in a sense.

    if anybody can recommend a book in which the lead seriously has committed an unforgiveable sin and remains likeable (not necessarily contrite), i’d love to hear about it.  i think our lapses are what makes us so fascinating, given a good remove.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  12:31 AM
  8. A character springs to mind, not from a book, but a movie: William Munny from “Unforgiven”. His past is unmistakably monstrous, and it crushes him. He paints a stark contrast to the more banal predators who consider themselves good men. They glorify and revel in their violent natures, while all he wants is to escape his.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  01:08 AM
  9. A problem I have with the Tragic Hero in classical Greek literature is the lack of free will: they’re generally unwitting victims of Destiny, or puppets pushed and pulled by gods.  I can enjoy the literature, and the plays, but I can’t find much common ground with the tragic heroes.  IMO you can’t be a true hero, anti-hero or even a villain if you have no free will; if your moral choices are overset by factors you can’t see, can’t defy, and can’t control.

    passerby:

    Mystery:  Thomas Perry’s a grand fellow for writing sympathetically about people who would ordinarily appall.  There’s “Island,” a charming bit of fluff about a con man whose biggest scam becomes far more meaningful than he anticipated.  And two books about a likeable hit man, “The Butchers Boy” and “Sleeping Dogs.” The hitman doesn’t introspect much at all, though, so there’s no moral awakening per se.

    Science Fiction:  Julian May’s Pliocene Exile series; specifically, the Aiken Drum and Marc Remillard characters.  Remillard is more fleshed out in the Galactic Milieu series - which is most comprehensible if you read Pliocene first, though its events take place before the events in the Pliocene series.  Lots of moral awakenings, but they’re subtle and take place over more than one book.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  01:28 AM
  10. More on Unforgiven:

    Little Bill, English Bob, and all the other gunfighters think that they can do bad things and yet still be “good men”. They can kill, they can torture, they can deliver beatings, and they can delight in the petty fear they inspire, but at the end of the day, they sit back on their porches and tell themselves that what they did, they did for the common good.

    Will is the only one who knows that’s not true. He tries to convince himself that this time it’s different, that he’s killing for a just and noble cause, but his constant pleas for reassurance from Ned are revealing. He’s afraid of his own power, and he knows that there is no good in it.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  01:29 AM
  11. Bah, John, you stole mine!

    The jury’s still out on Mackey. If not for Season 5, I’d say no. But now it seems more clear that everything is really starting to unravel. We’ll have to wait for the end of the show to be sure.

    Posted by Evan  on  05/24  at  01:31 AM
  12. If one was to thumb through some of the more ‘popular’ works in various periods of literary history, ones that never made the cut for today’s classics shelf, I think they would find a majority of main (*hero*) characters far closer to Parker’s and James’ then is assumed here.

    So I don’t find the Marlowe / Le Morte comparison all that apt. Unless you’re prepared to make the case that Chandler’s or Parker’s works will be read and admired more than six hundred years from now.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  01:53 AM
  13. I dunno if I agree with the “over the last generation or so” timeframe, with Marlowe as a distant harbinger of what was to come.  Seems that Marlowe’s heirs began showing up pretty fast (Lew Archer being the best of ‘em); and even Matt Scudder will soon be more than a generation back, if he isn’t already.  I felt that Scudder started out, in Lawrence Block’s first five novels about him, coming very close to the hard-boiled hero with real sins and vices.  But he eventually became charmingly flawed.

    You know who might work in that role, though?  John Constantine.  Not in Alan Moore’s hands, but in those of some subsequent writers.  Real vice there --he does a huge amount of gratuitous harm and perceives it as sin.

    Thanks for a sharp and thought-provoking post, LM.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  03:47 AM
  14. I doubt it’s been all that good for us as a nation to have spent a hundred years telling ourselves stories in which the hero has no vices and the apparent bad that he does, all his flaws, are really signs of his superior virtue.

    I’m no historian, but in my lifetime it’s been emphasized by the corporate media and white conventional “wisdom” at large that whenever the United States is “forced” to do something bad, (like killing civilians), it’s for the greater good. I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but this message seems to have been “amped up” quite a bit since BushCo took over.

    As for the characters discussed above in the post and comments, while very interesting, it’s tragically telling that they are all males.

    Captcha: “thinking”

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  06:27 AM
  15. Turn my back for a minute and a whole series of interesting discussions develop.

    Penon, I sure didn’t mean to put The Big Sleep on the same level as The Iliad.  I was trying to highlight our era’s conception of the heroic.  But the comparison to Stevenson is less arguable I think.  Stevenson’s books were---and by some people still are---dismissed as simple boys’ adventure stories.  Stevenson was consciously working within a genre.

    Spyder, I’d be interested in your expanding on the Merchant/Ivory depredations.

    lalouve, you’re right, all the knights are guilty.  I was thinking of Launcelot’s rescue of Guenevere and how he accidentally kills Gawaine’s brothers, but the Round Table really starts to fall apart with the Grail quest, which begins with all the knights, except Galahad and Launcelot, committing a collective sin of pride.

    John, Hawk and Vinny are definitely bad dudes, but when they work with Spenser they follow his code.  So one of their roles in the novels is to highlight Spenser’s superiority.  By the way, I like the Spenser novels.  Well, most of them.

    CJ, I just started reading the Flashman series, as a matter of fact.  But isn’t Flashy more of a villain who has unexpected lapses into virtue, as opposed to a hero who has some vices?

    Josh, Lew Archer’s one of my favorites.  I actually like MacDonald’s books better than Chandler’s, but one of the ways Archer and Marlowe are alike is that they keep their “issues” to themselves.  Dalgliesh has been around longer than a generation, but it seems to me that the “flawed” detective whose personal life takes up as much space, and in some books more space, than the crime-solving became the typical detective more recently.

    Oaktown, yep.  Torture, spying on innocent civilians, the attacks on John Murtha for daring to suggest that our guys could have committed an atrocity---we’re the good guys and we can do whatever we have to.  As for the lack of female characters above, I like the Stephanie Plum series, but a lot of people think she’s too silly.

    passerby, I can’t think of a recent novel, genre or literary, or a movie that has the sort of hero you describe, which is partly what inspired me to write this post.

    Does John Proctor in The Crucible fit? 

    Posted by Lance Mannion  on  05/24  at  07:58 AM
  16. The crux for ol’ Flashy is that he’s not only a cad, but a complete coward (moral as well as physical), but thru a series of totally underserved lucky breaks is perceived as a hero. Not sure how he fits in w/ the discussion on this post, but the Flashman books are great fun to read.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  08:37 AM
  17. I agree it’s an interesting and culturally telling topic, although I think you’re expanding the context unfruitfully to all of narrative literature. Isn’t it pretty much a practical commercial matter of 1) keeping the protagonist going for a successful series, and 2) selling to Hollywood / TV? Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade went way beyond “flawed” and stayed heroes, and then there are series anti-heroic protagonists like Richard Stark’s Parker and Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley. But they’re tougher sells, for exactly the reasons you note.

    Go back to prose fiction when the genres weren’t so settled, and you’ll find few saints. The problem is how are you going to spin a tragic hero out? “The Further Adventures of Heathcliff”?

    Case in point: The Third Man‘s despicable Harry Lime being turned into a “good bad but he’s not evil” cad with a heart of gold for radio.

    Posted by Ray Davis  on  05/24  at  09:41 AM
  18. In four words: Steve Reeves as Hercules.

    John Constantine is a telling counterexample. In the long twentieth century, the commercial genre most welcoming to tragic heroes has been horror. “Swamp Thing” (Constantine’s origin) was Alan Moore’s attempt to combine horror with the formal pressures of a superhero series. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is another interesting hybrid. (Plenty of flawed female protagonists in that one.)

    The safest approach to serialized flaw, though, has been comedy, where tragically confused characters can continue by virtue of the narrative putting off tragic consequences. Even here, sclerotic Hollywood has increasingly insisted on “redemptive” endings. (Cf. “The Simpsons”: “And then I learned the true meaning of winter!") Nowadays Duck Soup would’ve had to end with a group hug. And not like the one in Horse Feathers, either.

    Posted by Ray Davis  on  05/24  at  11:19 AM
  19. One pair of tragic heros springs to mind—Raistlin and Crysania in the Dragonlance Legends trilogy.  Sure, it’s schlock fantasy, but, unlike the Chronicles, Legends has some real complexity, and two of its three central figures are flawed in the Greek manner—they do bad and/or foolish things.

    Posted by RM 'Auros' Harman  on  05/24  at  12:50 PM
  20. I think it is unfair for audiences of the Shield to be witnesses to the “way-over-the-top” portrayal that is presented of some very real crimes by LAPD personnel at the Ramparts Division.  Mackey is into five seasons already, and hasn’t been killed, either by his own associates to protect themselves, or by other agencies?  The real Mackey, and his associates are in prison at the moment, a couple serving life sentences for murder.  Someone i grew up with ended up being one of the officers in that division, and the changes in his personality and overt disregard for the constitutional rights of citizens for no reason whatsoever, is disguised by the “bad guys” in the series.  I think Ice T put it best, when asked about why it was so easy for him (an ex-gang member) to play a cop on TV: “Cops are just another gang with colors, and weapons, and cool cars, who are fighting for control of the streets.  They just get treated better by everyone.”

    As for my Merchant/Ivory critique: 50 films have been produced by that studio all designed to garner profits and tell stories.  To do so, they must carve a caricature of the flawed hero, rather than really flesh them out, and then set them in beautified environments, in order to make their films sell to audiences around the world.  Think of the Jefferson in Paris film for example.  Here is one of our true real heroes, who certainly had numerous flaws and whose life, even to his death, was filled with one tragedy and another.  M/I present him (and who cast that movie?) in a sanitized form that is not evidenced by his own history, ruthlessness, and spendthrift ways.  US mythic history and M/I have been much too kind to a man who died penniless and bankrupt, denying his relationships with people, while continuing to praise his relationship with political thought and philosophy.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  03:09 PM
  21. If you want heroes with vices in modern crime fiction, James Ellroy is what you’re looking for.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  06:08 PM
  22. You’ve missed the whole point about Spenser as “pure.” He’s a boxer who understands that boxing is about beating stupider people senseless.  He kills people in every book—Hawk kills them even less consciencely, but Spenser kills frequently.  He would rather be cooking and reading poetry and loving his squeeze but he has “talents” that make him good at doing bad things.  His whole “my heart is pure” gig is his way of rationalizing his murderous way of making a living.  Parker makes it easier for him by sending even worse people his way, but he is most at ease dealing with the evilest.  He mocks the pseudo-evil, body-building non-killers, then kills them if they threaten him or his wards.  But he’s stained by the violence of his past and present.  That’s why the food and sex and humor are necessary, to dilute the harshness of what he does for a living.

    If you want a truly pure, if addled, PI, try Guy Noir, Private Eye.

    Posted by  on  05/24  at  09:55 PM
  23. Harry Flashman might not qualify as a hero, but he’s no villain.  He lacks the malign moral energy to go out and do active evil.  It’s just too much bother.  He may not care whether the wogs are oppressed, and may see the Empire, now that it exists, as in England’s interests, and wish it to be mainained by whatever means are necessary, but a nation of Flashmen wouldn’t have gotten England into such a fix to begin with.
    He also deeply respects actual heroes: not the blustering, reckless bravoes who cause so much trouble, but serious soldiers who care for their men, plan campaigns that make sense, and get the job done with a minimum of fuss, like Napier or Campbell, or the poor doomed bastards in the ranks who carry out the orders of men not fit to lead a picnic, let alone a war.
    Flashy may be—certainly is—a cad, but I can’t see him as a villain.

    Posted by  on  05/25  at  12:28 PM

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