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