About halfway through Robert Parker’s School Days, the detective Spenser sits down for a drink with his client, the elderly Lily Ellsworth:
“You seem an honest man, sir,” she said.
“‘Let be be the end of seem,'” I said.
She smiled faintly.
“‘The only emperor,'” she said, “‘is the emperor of ice cream.'”
“Very good,” I said.
“My generation read, Mr. Spenser; apparently yours did, too.”
“Or at least I did,” I said. “Still do.”
Here, Spenser is quoting Wallace Stevens’ 1922 poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” and Lily responds with the next line of the poem. The subtext — by my reading — is that in their generations, they read literature. (They’re not, after all, quoting Stephen King or V.C. Andrews.)
Two ironies stand out. The first is that Spenser actually misquotes the original poem; the line is “Let be be finale of seem” (which is less intuitive to the modern ear, but so be it). The second, of course, is that I’m reading this in a pulpy detective novel.
And yet, I adore Parker’s Spenser novels. I don’t read any other writer who matches Parker for witty dialogue. I haven’t read one in a while, and I found this on the free book shelf at the library in a beach town this summer, and reading it was like spending a few hours with a dear old friend. Spenser characterizes himself well: “I am persistent, and fearless, and reasonably smart.”
A few other quotes that I enjoyed:
- On persistence: “Keeping at it is one of my best things.”
- On overdoing things: “A thing worth doing…was worth overdoing.”
- On making do: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”
- On persistence (II): “I don’t know how smart you are,” he said. “But I’ll give you stubborn.”
- On expertise in your field and out of your field: “You been a fighter…and you stay in shape, you don’t lose that many fights outside the ring.”
- On seeking truth: “You probably can’t figure out the truth, if you think you know ahead of time what the truth is supposed to be.”
- On self-mastery:
“You need to work on your inhibitions,” I said.
“Controlling them?” Rita said.
“No,” I said. “Acquiring some.”