Thanks, Robert B. Parker (1932 – 2010)

The last Spenser, Jesse Stone, and Sunny Randall novels have been written…  Fortunately, there are a lot of them, and you can enjoy them for a lifetime.

Robert B. Parker was among my top ten favorite authors — I would read just about anything he wrote.  I was coming of age as Parker’s iconic character, Spenser, was launching his career as a P.I. in The Godwulf Manuscript.  From the first paragraph of that book, I was hooked…

 

Click to get a first edition of The Godwulf Manuscript from AbeBooks
Click to get a first edition of The Godwulf Manuscript from AbeBooks

“The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.  It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows.  There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs.  The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie.”

 

…and I have never stopped reading Parker’s stuff since.  So, in a sense, I grew into adulthood with Spenser.  And Parker’s notions of how a man could, and should act, as presented in his many novels, have informed my personal development and moral aesthetics.

Spenser — accomplished cook, sleuth, romantic, fighter, baseball fan, dog lover, sculptor, sardonic wise-ass — became an indelible character in the landscape of crime fiction.  Fundamentally, Spenser was a doer.   Though he could be uncertain of the right course of action, and sometimes self-castigating, Spenser was never a victim.  He exemplified what it means to live on your own terms.  Sometimes those terms would change — he adopted situational ethics from time to time (but don’t we all?) — but they were always formed by a fundamental sense of character and integrity.  As with any fictional character, Spenser mirrored aspects of his author (Parker wrote a book on weight-lifting, for example:  Training With Weights:  The Athlete’s Free Weight Guide), and the arc of his life reflected at times what was going on in Parker’s own life.  For example, the gradual deterioration (and subsequent rejuvenation) of Spenser’s relationship with his long-time main squeeze, Susan Silverman, reflected Parker’s difficulties in his own marriage.  (About which, something I’ve always been impressed with:  Parker and his wife, Joan, realized that they did not do well living together, and so after separating for a time they decided to inhabit separate floors of a large house, each thus maintaining the physical and emotional autonomy they both enjoyed, while at the same time maintaining their relationship.  That is some creative, outside-the-box thinking.  Who says married people have to live together?  I think many couples would be much happier if they didn’t.  I  appreciate Parker for being an independent enough thinker to adopt that situation.)

Spenser’s romance with Susan (and it was a romance in both a chivalric and sexual sense) informed his most fundamental motivations, though it was not without tension between what he felt was right to do in his life and what he felt was best to do in his relationship — a conundrum many of us have wrestled with.

Another brilliant creation of Parker’s was the character Hawk — someone whom television and movies have never quite gotten right (though Avery Brooks wasn’t too bad).  This is probably because, while Spenser is iconic, Hawk is mythological — while at the same time being one of the most palpably solid characters anybody has ever created.  That’s probably why Hawk never worked on the small screen — the reader gets too strong a sense of him from the books ever to let him be confined to some actor’s performance.

Parker had a knack for creating indelible characters, from ironically self-aware crime bosses to dogs.  You could almost see Spenser, Hawk, and Henry Cimoli working out at the Harbor Health Club, or figured you knew exactly the length and color of Lieutenant Quirk’s crew-cut.  Parker sketched them with admirable efficiency, portraying their essence with just a few brushstrokes, rounding out the visuals with the telling ways his characters spoke and acted.  As a writer, Parker epitomized the dictum show, don’t tell.  In that respect, he also created sharp, memorable action scenes.  In his narrative flow, action and violence could arise at any moment, without foreshadowing — just like, some might say, real life (though personally, I believe if you’re paying attention you can always have a sense of warning).  But it gave his plots an edge that helped sweep one through the story, and the often violent climaxes of his books were dynamic, mini-epics of action.  Here, for example, is the concise final showdown from Pale Kings and Princes, where Spenser, Hawk, and a friend who’s a state policeman take on a Colombian drug kingpin, his henchmen, and some crooked cops (warning:  spoilers here, if you haven’t read the book):

The door of Esteva’s car opened and Cesar got out from the driver’s side and opened the back door.  There was movement and Esteva got out of the rear.  Behind him, on a short leather lead, the big Rottweiler I’d seen when I visited Emmy.  Felice got out of the other front door of the Lincoln, and the three men walked toward us.

Esteva said very calmly, “Hello, pig fucker.”

“Perhaps you have me confused with someone else,” I said.

“Before I kill you,” Esteva said, “I want you to know that I’m giong to do it.”

“Or the pet cops you brought along,” I said, and jerked my head toward the cruiser.

Beside me Hawk was looking at Cesar and Cesar’s gaze was steady on Hawk.  He didn’t even blink as the snow came at him.  To Esteva’s left Felice was wearing his Celtics jacket over a red plaid shirt.  The collar of the shirt was turned up outside the jacket.  He had an excited smirk.

“Whoever has the pleasure of actually doing it,” Esteva said, “it will be me, my will.”

Behind us I could hear the police car’s door open.  Two doors, one closed, the other didn’t.

“Are you ready to die, pig fucker?”

“I have promises to keep,” I said.

Esteva spoke to the dog in Spanish and let go of the leather lead.  The dog sprang at my throat.  Hawk shot Cesar with the .25 through his mitten.  I hit the dog with a left cross and went for my gun with my right.  The force of my punch turned the dog in midair and he fell in front of Cesar, and stayed there.  I shot Felice as he brought his gun up from his hip pocket.  Cesar stepped over the dog, going toward Hawk.  Hawk shot him again with the .25.  Behind me I heard Lundquist say, “State Police, freeze,” and then the boom of the shotgun and someone grunted.  There was a pistol shot and another shotgun boom.  Cesar staggered but stayed on his feet and got hold of Hawk’s jacket.  Esteva was backing into the blizzard.  Cesar had gotten his arms around Hawk.  A bullet hissed through the snow and  whanged off a rock to our right.  I stopped and steadied and brought the Python down slowly with both hands, knees bent slightly, feet comfortably apart.  Another shot plunked into the side of the van.  Esteva’s blurred shape rested uncertainly on the top of my front sight.  I exhaled and steadied.  He was firm on the sight, his gun at arm’s length.  I squeezed the trigger carefully, and the gun barrel bounced and Esteva was down.  I turned toward Hawk.  Cesar had bent him backward a bit.  Hawk had his right hand under Cesar’s chin.  He was shaking the mitten off his left hand.  He seemed unhurried.  Cesar bent him back further.  Hawk brought the small automatic up with his left hand and placed it under Cesar’s chin and pressed up a little and pulled the trigger.  Cesar jounced and then sagged forward and his hold on Hawk loosened and he slid slowly down Hawk’s body to earth, leaving a smear of bright blood the length of Hawk’s person.

Lundquist leaned against the side of the van with the shotgun held barrel-up against his hip.  Captain Henry and J.D. were dead in front of him.

“Jesus,” he said.

There was blood on the front of his left thigh.

The action scenes are taut and dynamic, but what Parker especially excelled at was dialogue.  No one has ever produced more entertaining and/or humorous conversation on the page (some authors are as good — Elmore Leonard comes to mind — but no one is better).  Parker’s dialogue spoils you for the stilted imitation of dialogue produced by the majority of authors.

For example, here’s a little interlude from Widow’s Walk, where Spenser and his girlfriend, Susan Silverman (who has decided they should go for a bike ride along the river), pause to eat some of the “sandwiches” that Susan, ever the fastidious eater, has brought along.

…  Susan took a brown paper bag out of her backpack and began to set out finger sandwiches.

“There,” Susan said.  “Was that fun?”

“What would be fun about it?” I said.  “We’re not even together while we’re riding.”

“You’re just afraid you’ll fall off and embarrass yourself.”

“I thought you thought I was fearless,” I said.

“About stuff that matters,” she said.  “But when it doesn’t matter, you hate doing things at which you’re not accomplished.”

“Shall I lean back, Doc, and recall my childhood?”

Susan took a small bite of her egg salad sandwich.  “I have all the information about you I require,” she said.  “Tell me about the Nathan Smith business you’re working on.”

“There’s a lot wrong with the Nathan Smith business,” I said.  “First of all, there’s someone following me.”

“Dangerous?”

“No,” I said.  “It’s a what’s-he-up-to tail, rather than a try-to-kill-him tail.”

“Oh good,” Susan said.  “Do they know you’ve spotted them?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “They’re still being covert.  If they knew I’d made them they wouldn’t bother.”

“And you think it relates to the Nathan Smith murder?”

“Started shortly after I took the case,” I said.

“Do you know who they are?”

“They’re connected to a company called Soldiers Field Development Limited, the CEO of which is on Mary Smith’s invitation list.”

I took a second finger sandwich from the bag.

“What’s here besides bread and ham?” I said.

“Butter.”

“Butter?”

“Well, not exactly butter.  I sprayed it with one of those no-calorie butter-flavored sprays.  Same thing.”

“Jesus,” I said.

“Is it possible that it’s a coincidence, the surveillance and stuff?  Or maybe connected to another case you were involved in?  A loose end somewhere?”

“Always possible,” I said.  “I leave enough loose ends.  On the other hand, what do you shrinks think about coincidences?”

“They occur, but it is not a good idea to assume them.”

“That’s what we sleuths think about them, too,” I said.

And here’s a scene from Crimson Joy, in which Spenser works out at the Harbor Health Club and afterward he’s talking with his friend, Henry Cimoli, a former featherweight boxer who runs the club and is a personal trainer to rich dilettantes.

When I got through with the jump rope I was blowing my breath and soaked with sweat.  I felt like a squeezed-out sponge.  When I was fighting I used to be good in the late rounds.  The other guy was getting arm-weary and I was still full of starch.

I was out of the shower and getting dressed when Henry came in.

“Used to be simple,” Henry said.  “I’d train hard and then when I was ready, I’d go in the ring and Willie Pep or Sandy Saddler would ring my chimes for me, and I’d go home and in a few days I’d start training again.”

“That woman didn’t seem to have the killer instinct about training,” I said.

“Half the people who come in here are like that.  They want to feel great and look great and not pop a sweat.  That woman was bad.  But the worst are the guys who always thought jocks were vulgar, you know?  And then they get a physical and the doctor says they need exercise.  So they come down here wearing black socks and white tennis shoes and say things like ‘this machine is rather intimidating,’ and you got to practically put their fucking hands on the handles for them.  They don’t come down and scope things out a little.  They don’t look at the machine and notice there’s probably only one way it can work.  They don’t watch other people work out for a few minutes and see how they do it.  They come in and get on the fucking equipment upside down and flap their fucking arms like a fucking cocka doodle fucking do until you go over and say, ‘Perhaps it would work better if you did it this way.'”

I was dressed by the time Henry got through and was buttoning up my shirt.

“Feel better?” I said.

Henry grinned.  “On the other hand, I haven’t had any stitches in my lip lately.”

“Good point,” I said.

Parker also delved into writing westerns and, later in his career, seemingly effortlessly created two more vivid characters when he expanded his oeuvre to include New England police chief Jesse Stone and private investigator Sunny Randall.  And TV finally got a Parker-based production right with the Jesse Stone movies featuring Tom Selleck.  Selleck seems to me to lack the athleticism of Jesse Stone (he is a former pro baseball player) but he still manages to make the role his own in a satisfying way.  In general, Parker has not translated well to the big or little screen — there is a literary, brightly-verbal quality to his inventiveness that relies so effectively on the reader’s imagination that movies of his work mostly come across as plodding or tepid.  Maybe someone will someday get more of that stuff right.

What is for sure is that, on the western front, the movie adaptation of Appaloosa pretty much got it right.

By all accounts, Parker had an interesting life, and a quintessentially American one.  He seems to have come to grips early-on with what it meant to live on his own terms — what it meant to even desire to do that.  From an early age he wanted to be a writer and he did various things to support himself and his family (including getting a PhD in English literature and becoming a college professor) that would enable him to have time to write.  Eventually, after five successful Spenser novels, he was able to quit teaching and write full-time.  He said that he met his wife Joan when the two were still toddlers.  They had two sons, both gay, both of whom are pursuing careers in the arts.  He took up weight-lifting long before it was popular.  He was disciplined, confident, literate, passionate, industrious, generous, and thougtful.  He took on various social and philosophical themes in his books, but always came back to one fundamental question:  what does personal autonomy mean and how do you achieve it?  This is a corollary to Socates’ dictum to “Know thyself.”  In that sense, from Parker’s point of view, you can decide what you want to do, how you want to live, and then discover who you are as you live it.  Since each of us is a work in progress — nowhere is this more obvious than in the arc of Spenser’s fictional career — there is always going to be something new to discover, to know.

Parker was not only a success commercially; the critical response to his work was also generally favorable (not that he particularly cared).  In 1989, Pulitzer Prize winner R. W. B. Lewis wrote of the Spenser novels in the N. Y. Times Book Review:  “Robert B. Parker established such an elevated standard with his first four novels, through Promised Land in 1976, that it would have been virtually impossible to keep it up.  The level was impressively highy, though, through five or six more titles, by which time it was clear that we were witnessing one of the great series in the history of the American detective story.”

And Parker continued for another two decades.  Not every book has been a masterpiece, of course — that would be virtually impossible — but they are all entertaining.  And from the 1980s on, all have been best-sellers.  What is even more telling:  many of today’s younger mystery and detective fiction writers acknowledge being inspired by Parker’s work.  As Harlan Coben noted in 2007:  “When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”  Just another indication that Parker, along with his heroes Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, was one of the top four or five writers of detective/PI fiction in the 20th century (and the 21st).  As Sarah Weinman pointed out in the Los Angeles Times in January after his death:  “[Parker] didn’t concern himself with looking back.  Instead, he wrote, and in the process irrevocably altered American detective fiction, forging a link between classic depictions and more contemporary approaches to the form.”

There’s even been a cookbook featuring Spenser’s recipes published in Japan.

So far, 39 Spenser novels have been published, 9 Jesse Stone novels, and 6 Sunny Randall novels, not to mention westerns and miscellaneous other works, including 3 novels for young adults.  (There may be more that will be published posthumously.)  That means that in the genre of detective fiction alone, there are 54 novels available.  If you’ve never taken the opportunity to enjoy Parker’s work, you can average reading 4 of his books a year for the next 13 years.  That’s something to be grateful about.

Thank you, Robert.

The first 12 novels of the Spenser series include some of Parker’s best work.  Read those and you’ll understand Spenser’s world and the accomplishment of his creator.  Here they are in order of publication (and in sequence of Spenser’s life).  Get them for yourself now:

  1. The Godwulf Manuscript
  2. God Save the Child
  3. Mortal Stakes
  4. Promised Land
  5. The Judas Goat
  6. Looking for Rachel Wallace
  7. Early Autumn
  8. A Savage Place
  9. Ceremony
  10. The Widening Gyre
  11. Valediction
  12. A Catskill Eagle

 

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3 thoughts on “Thanks, Robert B. Parker (1932 – 2010)

  • DingoDogg

    on

    Greetings, Thanks for article. Everytime like to read you.
    DingoDogg

  • Food Freak Frank

    on

    These books sound intriguing. I just finished a series of really inspiring books, and I’m having trouble getting into any other book. I’ll have to check these ones out. This Spenser guy seems pretty inspired.

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