Sunday, October 10, 2010

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser: Still Fighting the Good Fight

Robert B. Parker died this past January. Painted Ladies, his latest Spenser novel was released this past Tuesday. And, according to Amazon’s web page, another Spenser will be released in early 2011.

That’s productivity.

Parker’s influence on writers—in and out of the mystery genre—is widespread. Harlan Coben told The Atlantic in 2007 that "When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."

“There’s private-eye fiction before Bob, and there’s private-eye fiction after him.” Dennis Lehane said in The Boston Globe. “The debt’s huge and I was always upfront about that. My first book is so much Robert Parker in the first chapter that I’m surprised he didn’t sue me.’’

But even writers that aren’t fans of detective novels would do well to be influenced by Parker’s discipline and work ethic.

He was at his desk every day. In fact, he died at his desk – perhaps, every writer’s dream? Parker’s agent Helen Braun told "Bob wrote five pages a day every day but Sunday … every day of his adult life. He was very clear about it. No more and no less than five pages.”

Only a writer would realize how tough that is to do.

Parker was, of course, an unabashed admirer of Raymond Chandler. But while Chandler’s influence was significant, Parker also had his own unique voice and characterizations.

Contrast the way each writer wrote about female characters. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe once described a woman as “a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” (Farewell, My Lovely)

But Spenser continued to be enraptured by his longtime love, Susan Silverman: “I looked at her. I felt the same feeling I always felt when I looked at her. It was almost a way to monitor my existence. Like a pulse. If I looked at her and didn’t feel the feeling, I’d know that I’d died.” (Double Deuce)

Some readers haven’t always liked Spenser’s sustained love for Susan; not hard-boiled enough, perhaps. But to me, this is where Parker skillfully modified the old school detective’s attitude towards females.

Without Susan and the unique relationships she had with Spenser, the detective would have been a latter-day, East Coast imitation of Philip Marlowe, and nothing more. That would have made Spenser just one of many Marlowe knockoffs. I think Parker was too good a writer and too savvy a creator of characters to settle for that.

I live in Boston and over the years would see Parker occasionally, perhaps at Fenway Park or sometimes at a book signing. When buying Painted Ladies the other day, it seemed strange and a bit sad to think Parker would not be making a signing appearance or two. Or that one wouldn’t see Parker and his wife, Joan, in a Boston restaurant similar to one in which Spenser would meet Susan—The Harvest (OK, that one’s in Cambridge), the Bristol Lounge or a Legal Seafood.

But someday I know I’ll find myself at the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley Streets, in Boston’s Back Bay, where Spenser’s office was. And I’ll still probably look up to the second floor and imagine what might be happening. Perhaps Hawk would have just walked in with fresh donuts, about to make plans to accompany Spenser on a late-night meeting.

And I’ll also do my level best to aim for that “five pages a day” discipline Parker had.


Sunny Frazier said...

I was fond of the Sunny Randall series. I mean, come on, she's one of the few characters with my name (there's a prostitute named Sunny, Chapter 13, Catcher in the Rye). I felt Parker matured his relationship between Susan and Spenser to make Spenser grow up. You're right--it was savvy on Parker's part. Hard to believe the icon is gone.

Sue Lehman said...

Always loved the Spencer series and have read them all except the latest. Nobody did dialogue like R. Parker---I've personally learned more about writing dialogue from him than anyone else. I'm really going to miss Parker and his distinctive detectives and police persons (I love the Jesse Stone series too). He was one of the best!

Holli said...

It sucks that the greats are dying off. It seems every time a great writer dies, six or seven writers who specialize in vampires pop up and try, unsuccessfully, to take his or her place.

Holli Castillo

BillieJohn said...

Parker is always on my list of favorites...just can't get enough of that crisp dialog and I love the way he moves a story along. And of course, I spent many hours hoping to meet the real life equivalent of Spenser...a literary tough guy who could shoot and fight and whip up a gourmet feast from the leftovers in the fridge, a manly man who was totally devoted to his love, Susan. It just don't get any better than that!

Billie Johnson

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Count me in as a Spenser fan. I had the privilege of meeting Parker a long time ago at a writers conference and he looked like I thought Spenser looked.


Kit Sloane said...

And then, of course, there was the fascinating NYTimes article interviewing Parker's widow. One of those "maybe this is more than I want to know about this person" articles. Not that it takes anything away from his stories, but certainly there was an eccentric and sad side to the man's life.


jack everett said...

If my epitaph is half as good as this one's is then believe me I will have died happy.

Marja said...

This article was a wonderful tribute to one of the great authors of our time. I look at my bookshelf and see so many of his titles, and it saddens me to know that there won't be anymore. A couple of people commented on Parker's dialogue, and I agree completely. His stories were unique, and I will miss them.

Bill Crider said...

One of my favorites from his first book until now.

Monti said...

I've never read one of his books, but just reading Joe's post makes me want to. I like the thought of walking down a Boston street and thinking about those people and events.