Back Shelf Review: Robert B. Parker, In Memoriam

February 23, 2010

Since I started working as a book critic, one of the sadder impacts it’s had on me is that I tend to notice when a well-established writer finally inks their last page and heads off to the great literary salon beyond. To name a few I have witnessed the obituaries of Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Gilbert Sorrentino, William F. Buckley Jr., J.G. Ballard, Frank McCourt, Howard Zinn and J.D. Salinger – all authors considered masters in the field, with works destined to last longer than their natural lifespan. I’ve offered a eulogy here and there on the site, but with the exception of Thompson and Vonnegut I’ve found it hard to really go into detail since I’ve either not read their work or had minimal exposure to it.

However, one writer who has passed on left me in a shattered state of mourning – even moreso because I found out only recently, a month after it happened, strolling through the shelves at Powell’s to see if his newest book was out yet and seeing a notice. On January 18, 2010, acclaimed mystery novelist Robert B. Parker was found dead in his home in Boston, the victim of a heart attack at his desk while working on his next novel. He died at the age of 77, leaving his wife Joan and two grown sons.

But that’s not the only thing he left behind. Parker may well be the most prolific mystery novelist in American history, responsible for the creation of Spenser, the private investigator with the unflinching moral code masked with a perfect sense of humor. He is the most reread author in my entire collection, I can name more of his titles than any other writer and he could probably take both Thompson and William S. Burroughs in a duel for the role of my favorite author.

Certainly a lot of pretty strong statements in that sentence, but I don’t say any of them lightly. Having read Parker’s novels for close to a decade now, I’ve grown up with them as I transitioned from casual reader to literary analyst and think I’ve learned a bit about what makes his style resonate – thoughts I’d like to take the time to share with you now. I’ve had this piece on the back burner, but with Parker’s unfortunate demise going under the radar I would feel remiss as a critic and a fan if I didn’t give the master the tribute he deserves.

“Ninety percent of writers who do P. I. admit Parker was a major influence. The other ten percent lie.”
– Harlan Coben

Parker was rather understated when asked about his success in the Boston Globe, saying that the secret was “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them.” And interesting characters certainly make up the first part of why Parker’s books are so readable, headed by the alpha male of Boston’s investigative world Spenser “with an S, like the poet.” A Korean War veteran and former D.A. investigator, Spenser became a P.I after being summarily dismissed from the cops for an independent streak that no chain of command could stand.

Spenser has many strong character traits that set him aside from other mystery protagonists – a former boxer, an accomplished cook, well-read, comfortable with being a smart-ass – but that streak of independence is what puts him at the head of the class. His career is one that puts him through many tough events and confronted many dangerous people, and he has survived it by adhering to a strict code of honor: no killing unless in self-defense, no harming of the innocent, pursuit of the truth at all costs. In many ways it’s essentially noble virtues, and on many occasions characters comment Spenser thinks he is Lancelot or Galahad – a virtue he encourages by claiming his strength as “the strength of ten.”

And his strength never seems to fail him, even when everyone including his clients would prefer it to. The majority of the Spenser books aren’t motivated by money, or even legal rights – they’re about the simple fact that he agreed to take a case and wants to see it through to the end. Spenser may be the only P.I who solves cases for the same reason men climb mountains, and while his motivations seem limited to “Because I can’t sing or dance” in many of the books, it somehow makes him stronger rather than one-dimensional.

Spenser may rely on himself more than anyone else, though it is in the interaction with two other main characters that the story comes to life. The first is Susan Silverman, his long-time love, a Cambridge psychiatrist and self-described “well-bred Jewess.” She not only offers him a professional opinion on the cases he handles, but also understands his quest for self and provides him an anchor when he needs it. Susan and Spenser have been together since the second book in the series (1974’s “God Save the Child”) and despite “a little gap in the middle” in Spenser’s words, they have weathered adultery and cohabitation and continually come out stronger – and even gotten a dog they spoil unceasingly.

The other side of Spenser comes with Hawk, an African-American solider of fortune and unquestionably the greatest badass ever created in crime novels. A man with a taste for finely crafted clothes, expensive champagne and a chrome-plated .44 Magnum that could take down a jet, Hawk is charming and self-amusing, seamlessly segueing between impressions of David Niven and Uncle Remus. Spenser and Hawk’s banter is classic tough-guy prose, the sort of conversations by friends who have known each other for years and can’t take offense at anything the other says.

But all of Hawk’s charm comes with an unsettling quality, “impassive and hard as an obsidian carving,” as is evident every time he offers to kill people in the way and Spenser turns him down because he knows he means it. Not sociopathic but pragmatic, Hawk simply doesn’t care about who he has to kill, comfortable in the life he has chosen and the knowledge “the games I play nobody can play as good.” Spenser’s world is full of these confident amoral rogues: Vinnie Morris, a shooter with almost-clockwork movements; Chollo, a self-mocking Chicano gunman; and Tedy Sapp, an unflinchingly tough bleach-blonde gay bouncer. Anytime they enter the book, you not only get excellent banter between Spenser and his rogues’ gallery, but a real sense of the decency behind the man: he could take their way, but to be true to himself he never will.

The relationships between the characters are stellar, and the main reason is that Parker’s prose is perfectly tailored for the world he creates – I have always made the comparison that if Ernest Hemingway wrote mystery novels, they would be the closest thing to Parker’s series. Parker rarely uses too many words in his sentences, his action progressing at an even clip and incorporating only the details and thoughts that his protagonists consider important. And while I mentioned it above, it bears repeating – the dialogue is the best in mystery or even mainstream novels, back-and-forth repartee that I’ve quoted back and forth with my dad hundreds of times.

But what really makes the book stand out for me is the overwhelming grasp of literature evinced in the books, a truly rare thing in mainstream mystery. Parker held a doctorate in English literature (writing his dissertation on the protagonists of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler) and taught at Northeastern University, and it peppers every novel he writes. Titles are taken from Robert Browning to John Keats to Robert Frost, and Spenser may be the only private eye who can mention the Red Sox and Shakespeare on the same page.

It’s a “large but literate” quality, really said best in Parker’s “Bad Business”:

“And your conclusion?”

“Sort of a big John Keats,” Susan said.

“That would be me,” I said. “Silence and slow time.”

I’ve spent the majority of this piece on the Spenser series, but while that would be enough for any writer Parker wasn’t content to stop there. Surprisingly late in his career, Parker started writing two new series based on new characters, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. Both are set in Spenser’s world – Spenser even partners with Stone in “Back Story” – but the two don’t come from the same hardened core he does. Stone, an ex-LAPD detective turned chief of police in a Massachusetts harbor town, is recovering alcoholic with an ex-wife he can’t let go of. Randall, a female Boston P.I from a background of cops and criminals, also has a troubled relationship with her ex and has to fight off the typical prejudice that a woman can’t do the kind of work she does.

He also expanded genres into Westerns with his trilogy on lawmen-for-hire Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, containing “Appaloosa,” “Resolution” and “Brimstone.” I’ve talked about these briefly in my Text-to-Screen of “Appaloosa,” but to reiterate his style and moral code pair perfectly with the unforgiving world of the Wild West, and proves that whether they have six-shooters or Browning nine-mils his shooters never fail to disappoint.

So, where to start reading? When an author has more than sixty books to their name, starting out is certainly a tall order, even for an author whose prose and plots can be consumed very quickly. Thankfully, Parker’s books are easy to find – being the alpha males of the paperback mystery, I’ve built my collection on a mix of used bookstores and airport kiosks, and Goodwill stores will almost certainly have at least one.

A_Catskill_EagleOut of all his work, I feel “A Catskill Eagle” is the best – a letter tells Spenser that Susan in trouble and Hawk is in jail, and from there it’s a foregone conclusion on hell breaking loose. The bonds between the three are never stronger, the story has never been more intense and the action has never been so defined. It’s a masterfully written book that could easily stand alone, not as minimalist as later Spensers or as hard-boiled as earlier ones, transitional both in terms of his style and the way the characters develop. However, I think that to really appreciate it, more familiarity with the world is necessary.

Chronologically, it doesn’t really matter where to start. “Sudden Mischief” is the first of his books I ever read, and it was enough to propel me to continue exploring the canon – and also probably the best depiction outside of “A Catskill Eagle” of the relationship Susan and Spenser share. Other later favorites include “Thin Air,” “Small Vices,” “Widow’s Walk,” “Back Story” and “Now and Then.” In the earlier books, “The Judas Goat” and “Early Autumn” are the most indispensable to the storyline, with the former really establishing the importance of the Spenser-Susan-Hawk trinity and the latter showing Spenser’s humanity as he takes on an unofficial fifteen-year-old foster son.

In his other series, some of the quality and interest varies but in each case it’s hard to pick one that goes wrong. The Stone and Randall books both get better with later installments such as “Night and Day” and “Spare Change” as Parker manages to really split the characters’ voices from the more established franchise – Stone comes out stronger after each case as he makes the town his own, and Randall becomes a strong female character without being a bitch or a cliché. His last book (I can’t even type that phrase without having to blink rapidly), “Split Image,” released this week, will continue a crossover between the two that began in “Blue Screen” and I’m hopeful for a happy ending for both.

Really though, when it comes to Parker’s books, a happy ending isn’t necessary in the broad sense because the world he created will always be there, his Boston as eternal as Doyle’s London. Spenser’s office will always be at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston. A German shorthaired pointer will be sleeping on the sofa, and a massive black man will be sitting next to it reading Simon Schama with a sawed-off shotgun on the end table. A picture of a beautiful brunette will sit on the file cabinet, a .357 Magnum in an open desk drawer, and at the desk will be a man with a quick wit and a slightly flattened nose willing to work for any client who can put up with him.

That world remains alive for me and thousands of others, in the collection of lovingly battered paperbacks that will never lose their spot of honor on the shelf. Rest in peace, Mr. Parker.

“I don’t think of myself as a genre novelist. I think of myself as a person writing novels about people involved with crime. I go through the same process that Updike went through, but he may have gone through it a little better. It’s all about the limits of your imagination and the limit of your skill.”

– Robert B. Parker, Wall Street Journal, January 24, 2009

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Book Review: The Wordy Shipmates

October 6, 2008

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell

Published October 7, 2008

Riverhead Books

254 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48999-0

Reviewed October 5, 2008

Sarah Vowell is the sort of person you desperately wish taught your high school American history class: smarter than anyone else in the room, a quirky sense of humor, full of random trivia and a genuine enthusiasm for her topic. Her 2005 effort “Assassination Vacation” may be one of the best books of this decade, looking at the macabre side of our executive branch with the voice of a skeptical fangirl.

Now, with her latest title “The Wordy Shipmates,” Vowell has graduated from being the ideal high school teacher to the ideal college professor. It’s a more professional work than her earlier titles, more akin to an academic essay than a road trip diary, but that doesn’t keep it from being one of the best recent books on pre-Founding Fathers America.

The “wordy shipmates” in question are the Puritans, most particularly a section which set sail from England in 1630 to settle in what would eventually become Boston. Vowell looks beyond the stereotype, viewing them as an optimistic, highly literate people who gave America more than a reputation for sexual repression. Their desire to write and express thought would give precedent for the First Amendment, and their leader John Winthrop would advocate “a city upon a hill” and lay the groundwork for America’s centuries of self-importance.

Winthrop, the political head of the settlement, is one of the main characters Vowell plays along with: he is a compassionate authoritarian who ordered a man’s ears cut off, but postponed his exile until the harsh winter ended. He tried to keep his colony independent without agitating the English monarchy, but found himself up against personalities equally as forceful. On one hand was Roger Williams, a rabble-rouser who advocated separation of church and state to protect the church and whom Vowell sees as a perfect talk-show host in modern times. On the other was Anne Hutchinson, who challenged religious order and would have won all debates if she could only shut up for the closing statement.

Vowell’s books have been moving from essay collections to more cohesive history texts, and “The Wordy Shipmates” reflects this shift in style. There are no chapters or major separations between sections, and it focuses chiefly on analyzing documents such as Winthrop’s journals and Williams’ letters. It has the feel of a masters’ thesis, which is not a condemnation – Kurt Vonnegut earned a master’s in anthropology for “Cat’s Cradle” after all – but after the ambling pace of “Assassination Vacation” it’s certainly a shift to see Vowell spend most of her time in the library.

The literary fascination of the Puritans may have rubbed off a little too heavily on Vowell, but a more formal structure isn’t enough to silence her droll tone: she can recall enacting the fires of hell at Bible camp with puppets and flashlights and say how genuinely excited she was about a sitcom depicting the harsh winters Pilgrims had to endure. Fans of “Assassination Vacation” will be pleased to see she continues touring with her sister and niece, dragging them to Pilgrim reenactment villages and a museum neighboring an Indian casino.

And these examples get to the core of what makes Vowell’s writing such a treat: they’re accessible in a way no other history writer is. She weaves mass media into these historical actions, comparing the founding of Massachusetts to a Bugs Bunny cartoon and Winthrop’s feud with his deputy governor to a Nancy Drew mystery. Her analogies aren’t there to distract a reader but draw them in further, doing exactly what a teacher should do: make you understand the argument.

One passage in particular showcases her style, able to make a thesis statement in one sentence and convert it to pop culture in the next: “They personify what would become the fundamental conflict of American life – between public and private, between the body politic and the individual, between we the people and each person’s pursuit of happiness. At his city-on-a-hill best, Winthrop is Pete Seeger, gathering a generation around the campfire to sing their shared folk songs. Williams is Bob Dylan plugging in at Newport, making his own noise.”

It’s passages like that one that reaffirm Vowell’s position as the maven of American history, and that keep “The Wordy Shipmates” an accessible and amusing read. The more formal structure and occasionally thick text may offset fans of “Assassination Vacation,” but Vowell keeps it flowing with her trademark wit and a cast interesting enough to change anyone’s definition of “puritan.”


Book Review: Puff

June 5, 2008

Puff: A Novel

By Bob Flaherty

Published February 2005

Harper Perennial

288 pp.

ISBN 0-060-75152-5

Date reviewed: March 10, 2005

Originally reviewed in: The Daily Cardinal

Two brothers in 1970’s Boston learned the location of high-quality pot only one town away. The catch? It’s the middle of a fierce winter blizzard and no cars are allowed on the highway. The solution? Disguise their ancient van as a Red Cross truck. The next catch? People think they really are the Red Cross—and want their help.

This crisis sets the stage for Bob Flaherty’s “Puff,” a hilarious and gripping story about two young men approaching the turning point. John and his brother Gully have been drifting through life for years, unable to focus on jobs or family for more than five minutes. Driving through the snow in pursuit of an ounce of Dominican Sin they uncover childhood friends and memories, thrown on a road that pushes them to adulthood by the end.

The focus of the story is on John and Gully, and Flaherty portrays it with startling familiarity. The conversations the two have are some of the funniest moments in the story and any set of brothers will be able to identify with their dynamic; mostly jokes and insults, with an occasional serious comment neither wants to think about for too long.

Flaherty infuses the story with amazing character development. He scatters key figures from the brothers’ childhood across the snow; including John’s childhood crush Dally, the ominous priest at the local church and their homicidal family cat, Puff.

John’s artistic mind picks up the best parts—he describes the priest’s “cold, penetrating, silver-blue bloodshot eyes” and Puff’s (assumed) goal to dice apart the family and drag them behind the couch. Every character seems like a person or pet that could be right next door.

Flaherty draws heavily on his background as a cartoonist and comedian, sprinkling the whole book with keen jokes and observations. Both John and Gully spend the book laughing at everything—even while their mother suffers from cancer—and most readers will be in the same hysterical state when Gully ruins an Army interview or John blows a backseat encounter by discussing comic books.

Some of the best memories stand out free from the narrative, such as when the boys’ mother has an illustrated story rejected by the publishers and when the brothers tear apart their father’s shop with their mentally disabled friend Ward. These chapters can all be read as independent short stories without the story’s narrative tying them together, making “Puff” an excellent book to pick up when reading time is short.

“Puff” is an excellent novel of young adulthood and family, a collection of short stories tied together by the hunt for a promised high. Flaherty pulls in hundreds of little details and anecdotes, blending skeletons with racism and religion with moles to write one of the smoothest books in years.