Uncategorized Patrick Mead on 23 Jan 2010 08:00 pm
In Houston this last week, I had a little time before my next speaking appointment so I popped into a Borders bookstore. Knowing that I had gone through the books I had brought with me (I seem to read a lot faster in airports and airplanes than I do sitting at home), I picked up a couple more. One of them was Robert Parker’s “Then and Now,” a Spenser novel. The clerk said something like “That was so sad, hearing that Robert Parker died.” I was surprised. It was news to me. I went back to my hotel and did a web search. Sure enough, Robert Parker, aged 77, died at his writing desk. They think it was a heart attack.
Robert Parker made me want to be a writer. His best known character, the private detective Spenser, starred in 37 books. He wrote nearly another 30 books but it was the Spenser series that will live on. No one — and I mean no one — could write cracking dialog, witty banter, and quick comebacks like Parker. His widow said he wrote up to five pages a day. Just five pages a day, and yet he wrote over sixty books, almost all of which are still in print. I think he must have spent two thirds of his day stripping every single superfluous word out of the dialog. It was and remains amazing. I read “Then and Now” in a few hours. It moved with a precision that very, very few other writers could match. He hadn’t lost his touch.
Though, to be fair, the Spenser books stumbled badly twenty some years ago and never recovered. Parker introduced a steady girlfriend for Spenser — Susan Silverman — and made his fans gag with every subsequent book. While the action and dialog were fantastic and while Spenser remained a fully developed libertarian, chef, shootist, and philosopher, we now had to put up with Parker throwing the brakes on the action while Susan and Spenser made sexy, knowing banter. It got old in the first book and reviewers constantly complained about her (with the passion one usually reserves for attacks on Jar Jar Binks) but Parker never failed to give her lots of space in his books. He mentioned her habit of barely taking a bite of her food, of her “oh boy” beauty, and she mentions that she has a Ph.D. from Harvard in every book (in this book, I counted three times and have the nagging feeling I missed one).
Spenser had another problem. No, I’m not referring to the foul language that often entered the books. His problem was his popularity. It kept him alive too long. You see, in the first four or five books, Spenser refers to himself as a Korean War veteran. That would mean in the book I read yesterday, the next to last Spenser book, he would be around 75-80. The sexual banter between him and his Main Squeeze (yes, he calls her that sometimes) is creepy. It is written as if they were still back there 20+ years ago. He certainly moves and behaves like a man perhaps 45. Parker had painted himself in a corner and instead of going back and placing his books in the past in order to keep Spenser young, he published them as if time had marched on and left Spenser and Silverman somewhere behind.
Still, Spenser is one of the most fully developed characters in detective fiction. He was a unique, self reliant man who understood his rules and understood the consequence of making your own rules. Parker tried to escape him by creating the Jesse Stone series of novels (now a series of TV movies with Tom Selleck doing an excellent job of playing the character) but Stone was too flawed for most of us to respect. Parker then wrote a moderately successful series with a female detective in the lead. She was a female Spenser. It was painful for me to read the first one. I didn’t read the rest.
Parker’s life was an interesting one. For years, his wife lived on one floor of their home and he lived on the other. A tough man, there was a longing in him. He was a failed Galahad, a Lancelot with no maiden who wanted him to rescue her. Forgive me but, like Susan Silverman, I am — or was — a shrink. The last ten or so Spenser books told me a lot about the pain Parker went through. He worked it out on the page and tried to act like things were just fine. Spenser still cooked a lot and talked about food. He was capable at building, shooting, boxing, sex, and wit… but there was something still broken in Parker that bled through Spenser.
There have been a few movies and two TV series inspired by Spenser. But the books are done. I find myself mourning both Spenser and Parker. I think they were probably the same man. If you want to taste the series, start with his early stuff.
Another thing I appreciated about Parker — he never got embarrassed about his early stuff or his protagonist. One of my other favorite writers is Robert Crais and he frequently ditches his fantastic series on Elvis Cole to write other books. Worse is Dennis Lehane. Lehane is one of the best writers out there in any field, but he dropped his detective series and has spoken of those books as being beneath him now. It almost made me mad enough not to read anything else he writes (and some have done just that). But had I done that, I would have missed the single most scary, surprising, atmospheric book I have ever read in my life, “Shutter Island.” Oh my goodness. I am never, ever surprised by a book’s ending. Except for that one. But, please, Dennis, bring back your Boston peeps.
I always wanted to grow up to be a Christian version of Spenser. I think Parker wanted to be Spenser, too, but he never found his Susan so he had to invent her, woo her, talk to her, and love her right in the middle of his books. I’ll forgive him for that. And I’ll miss him. Fact is, I miss him already.