Monday, January 25, 2010

Looking for Robert B. Parker: A Fond Farewell to the Man Who Saved P.I. Fiction, Part II

(Editor’s note: Following the unexpected death last week of detective novelist Robert B. Parker, 77, Rap Sheet contributor Cameron Hughes asked dozens of Parker’s colleagues, friends, and critics to share their thoughts on his legacy. Part I of this tribute appeared here.)

Craig Johnson, Wyoming author of the Walt Longmire series (The Cold Dish, Kindness Goes Unpunished, and The Dark Horse):

People in the mystery genre rarely talk about humor, but when they do they mention the man from Boston--that and the dialogue. Nobody was better. Robert B. Parker could put two characters discussing detergent in a Laundromat, and it would still compel and make you laugh.

He once remarked that he’d been in the infantry in Korea, but that the worst people he’d ever met were [those he met] during his tenure as an associate professor at Northeastern University. After the success of The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he rolled a yellow piece of paper into his typewriter and wrote, simply and elegantly, “I quit.”

He went on to resurrect the private-eye genre in the later part of the 20th century, no mean feat, with an admixture of tough-guy sensitivity and most of all, humor.

When my first book, The Cold Dish, was getting published, Viking/Penguin asked me if I knew any writers who would be willing to write me a blurb. I didn’t even know what a blurb was, but they had me contact Bob and ask if he’d be willing. Not only did he say he’d be willing to read it, but he delivered the pronouncement that now rests on the cover of my debut novel--in 72 hours.

I wrote him a thank-you note; old school. He wrote back in the return mail; old school. He talked about coming to Wyoming (the birthplace of his character Spenser) and doing some fishing. I assured him that both the fish and I were here, waiting. He never did. The responsibilities of three books a year and three dozen novels in the Spenser series kept him at his desk.

He died at that desk, and I’m sure that’s the way he would’ve wanted it. The other thing I’m sure of is that it was a line of dialogue he was writing when he passed; and I bet it was funny, some pithy remark from Spenser’s mouth, and that he laughed himself into that great beyond. That’s the way I like to think of Robert B. Parker going.

Robert Ward, the author of Total Immunity:

Robert Parker was one of my favorite writers. Parker proved you actually could create a character who was tough, a student of literature and life, a great cook, and a man of substance who had a bright girlfriend, Susan Silverman. His alter ego, Hawk, was the best of [modern detective fiction’s] bodyguard, tough-guy buddies and Spenser’s relationship with the cops was believable, and funny. In fact, Parker was one of the funniest writers ever. One of the toughest of all things to do is be funny and still keep things suspenseful. Outside of Chandler and Elmore Leonard, Parker was the hippest wit of them all. Often, while reading his books, I’d stop and read some of his wonderful dialogue to my wife, who dug the lines as much as I did. He was one of the best ever, and I believe many of his books will last.

Gerald So, co-editor of The Lineup: Poems on Crime, fiction editor of The Thrilling Detective Web Site, and moderator of the online Parker discussion group, Spenser’s Sneakers:

Looking back, I can think of no better writer with whom to fall in love with mystery, poetry, depth, the resonance of language, than Robert B. Parker.

Lee Goldberg, Los Angeles screenwriter and author of the Monk TV tie-in novels (Mr. Monk in Trouble):

I was lucky enough to meet [Parker] on several occasions. The last time was way back in 2002, at the Edgar [Awards presentation], when he was named Grand Master [by the Mystery Writers of America] and I was nominated for a Nero Wolfe episode. We had a very nice conversation about writing for TV and the P.I. genre. Parker revitalized and transformed the traditional P.I. with Spenser, replacing [Philip] Marlowe and [Lew] Archer as the yardstick that every new P.I. character is measured against. And for good reason, since Parker’s influence has been evident in them all and will be for a long time to come.

Linwood Barclay, the author of Never Look Away:

I always bought Robert B. Parker in hardcover. I loved the much-griped-about white space, the short chapters, the simple but effective cover designs. They had such a nice heft to them, these books. They were the literary equivalent of a ridiculously expensive dessert--they didn’t last long, but they were such a pleasure. After reading some bloated, overwritten, description-sogged novel, I longed for a Parker. He was fun. And even if his later books were not quite up to the standard he’d set in Early Autumn--one of my favorite novels in any genre--Spenser and Susan and Hawk were family. I wanted to know what they were up to, and I loved to hear them talk in my head. And Parker could still surprise--Appaloosa [2005] was perhaps his finest work in 20 years. I feel the way I did when we lost Ross Macdonald and Ed McBain. Very sad.

Cara Black, author of Murder in the Palais Royal:

I heard Robert B. Parker died at his desk. Writing. They don’t breed writers like Parker anymore. It’s sad and a loss, but I think he would be happy to have gone like that. Writing to the end. The only time we ever briefly intersected was on NPR [National Public Radio] during an interview, and listeners were invited to call in. Somehow my call managed to get through and I was so dumbstruck I mumbled something about how I admired his work and was driving back from a San Francisco Mystery Writers of America meeting in ... in ... of course I forgot everything and mumbled the Dashiell Hammett place ... uh, the restaurant where he wrote and where there’s a copy of the Maltese Falcon.

Without skipping a beat, Parker said, “John’s Grill, of course.”

Brian M. Wiprud, the author of Feelers:

[Parker was] a seminal crime writer, and an inspiration to a generation of authors in his wake.

Dave White, author of The Evil That Men Do:

Very few people inspired me to write like Robert B. Parker did. His sense of style and the ease in which the characters reveal themselves to the reader were something to strive for. Spenser novels always read like a visit with an old, tough, and funny friend. I’ll miss him.

Sam Reaves, the author of Mean Town Blues:

Nobody did the literate, humane but tough-as-nails private eye better than Robert B. Parker. He showed us what crime fiction can do, and raised our standards.

Charles Ardai, the editor of Hard Case Crime:

I came to Robert Parker’s work fairly late, just in the last 10 years, but enjoyed it quite a lot; every time I read one of his books I was struck by how satisfying his prose was, like a good meal when you’re nice and hungry. Writing like that is deceptive--it looks so simple, so plainspoken, so effortlessly entertaining. But just try to write like that. It takes quite a lot of effort, and quite a lot of talent.

Though he didn’t start writing novels until the 1970s, Parker grew up in the era that Hard Case Crime celebrates and I think of him as someone who had the soul of an old-time pulp writer (needless to say, I mean this as a compliment). I always nursed a faint hope that perhaps we’d get to work with him some day, in some fashion, and it makes me very sad to know it’ll never be.

My heart goes out to his family and friends and fans.

Louise Penny, author of The Brutal Telling:

Robert Parker didn’t just create a great, tragic hero in Spenser, he inspired a lot of what is now modern crime fiction. He showed it was possible for a character to be complex, thoughtful, poetic--but also brutal. To have a nobility, and a street-sense. His Spenser was a great creation, and will far outlive his creator. This is a sad day. If crime fiction was Broadway, our lights would dim tonight. A luminary has passed.

Joe R. Lansdale, bestselling Texas author of the Hap Collins and Leonard Pine novels (Vanilla Ride):

Robert Parker was someone who, even when I felt I had read the story before, or something like it, kept me reading, kept me coming back to his work. He reinvented the private-eye field and gave it new life, and changed the direction of crime fiction. I’m sad he’s gone, but what a way to go, working at your desk.

Wallace Stroby, author of The Barbed-Wire Kiss and Gone ’til November:

It was easy to lose sight of in the years that followed, but that initial run of Spenser novels in the ’70s and early ’80s was quite a feat. Early Autumn is one of the 10 best American private-eye novels ever.

J.A. Konrath, the author of Cherry Bomb:

The very first mystery I ever read was Mr. Parker’s The Judas Goat [1978], and it had such an impact on my 9-year-old self that I was 100 percent sure, when I grew up, I was going to become a semi-pro boxer/wisecracking Boston private eye. That didn’t work out, and I became a mystery writer instead. I’m forever indebted to Mr. Parker for his influence on my own writing, and his impact on the entire mystery genre. He will be deeply missed, but his work will never be forgotten. He was, and always will be, the best of the best.

Gar Anthony Haywood, the author of Cemetery Road:

Robert B. Parker was the hard-boiled writer we all wish to become when we first start out. He had everything: talent, success, and an output that lent the impression it all came easy to him. But Parker was no lightweight; his best Spenser novels are as smart and efficient as any ever written within the P.I. subgenre. His readership was hard-earned and, even more impressive, well deserved.

José Latour, Cuban novelist, author of Crime of Fashion:

The world loses a master of hard-boiled crime fiction. He will be missed and remembered by millions.

Mark Coggins, the San Francisco author of The Big Wake-Up:

If Raymond Chandler made me want to be a private-eye writer, Robert Parker inspired me to really try. It was after reading a used copy of The Godwulf Manuscript in the early ’80s that I sat down at my typewriter for the first time after college to write fiction. I still have that copy of Goldwulf, but what I prize even more is my signed copy of the version of the novel that appeared in Argosy. Godspeed Mr. Parker, Spenser, Susan, and Hawk.

Victor Gischler, author of the forthcoming novel, The Deputy:

A great loss to the mystery community. Quite a surprise when I heard about it this morning. I heard he died at his desk while writing. If I’m still writing and publishing when I’m 77, I’ll count myself lucky.

Steve Brewer, the author of Cutthroat:

One of mystery’s grand masters is gone. Robert B. Parker inspired us all with his work ethic and his long, productive career. Spenser, Hawk, and his other characters will live forever.

Don Bruns, the author of Stuff to Spy For:

I [once] signed with him ... sitting right next to the guy. He had 150 people, I had five. He looked at me and said, “Hey, I’m signing next to you. We need a picture of that.” So he suggested we hold up our name cards and look like two criminals posing for a mug shot. (It’s on my Web site.)

Robert Parker was a true craftsman. He took his work seriously and worked as hard as anyone in the business. He was also a gentle man and will be greatly missed.

James R. Benn, the author of Evil for Evil:

Robert B. Parker was the über-master of deceptive simplicity. I so admired his talent that I had to work to keep my early writing from appearing to be an imitation, if only to not look foolish.

Max Allan Collins, the author of Quarry in the Middle and co-author (with Mickey Spillane) of the forthcoming Mike Hammer novel, The Big Bang:

I admit to not being a fan of Robert B. Parker’s. His style was never one I connected with. But I have always fought for him to receive recognition, because without his innovation and success, the mystery field--in particular the private-eye genre--might have stagnated. He re-energized the P.I. novel, paving the way for a new wave of detectives, who were often connected with a city like Boston that had been otherwise ignored as a setting for such a story, and made possible the boom of female private eyes as well. Perhaps 10 years ago, I met him at a University of Iowa speaking engagement, where as the sort of resident Iowa tough-detective writer I was brought around ahead of time to pay my respects. He was gracious to me, very friendly, and at least pretended to know who I was. We spoke of Mickey Spillane, with whom he’d done several TV appearances, and he warmly shared his memories of Mickey, two men who jump-started private-eye fiction in their respective eras. By the way, he was a terrific speaker that evening--funny and low-key and fine. Writers like me owe him a debt. Thank you, Mr. Parker.

Cornelia Read, author of the forthcoming Invisible Boy:

What a tremendous loss for all of us who so admired the man’s inimitable style and wit--as readers and as writers. I read today that Parker once said he began writing because he missed reading about Chandler’s Philip Marlowe so much. I have no doubt that his own creative legacy will provide equally profound inspiration for generations of authors to come.

Peter Abrahams, author of the forthcoming Bullet Point:

He gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and made it look easy. Hard to do better than that.

John Vorhaus, author of the March release, The California Roll:

Parker taught us all how to put cool on the page.

Robert J. Randisi, founder of the Private Eye Writers of America and author of the “Rat Pack Mysteries,” the latest of which is You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Kills You:

Parker created one of the most famous characters in P.I. fiction with Spenser. He also gave birth to Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone, but I believe his other major accomplishment was in creating an iconic sidekick in Hawk. Hawk is the yardstick by which all other sidekicks--Robert Crais’ Joe Pike, Harlan Coban’s Win, Andrew Vacchs’ Max, etc.--are measured, and always will be. It’s anybody’s guess why there were never any Hawk novels.

Tim Dorsey, who wrote Gator A-Go-Go:

It is very sad news. We’ve lost a genuine giant and a great voice--
far too soon.

Jeffrey Cohen, the author of A Night at the Operation:

I was, and remain, a big fan of his writing, and started thinking about writing crime fiction myself when I read his work. I’ll miss him a lot.

John Weagly, author of The Undertow of Small Town Dreams:

Mystery writer Robert B. Parker died yesterday at the age of 77. He was just “sitting at his desk.” Not a bad way to go for a writer who put out three books a year, who wrote five to 10 pages a day. He was one of the great ones, one of those writers who gave the private-eye novel several standards that we take for granted now. And if he didn’t invent a new element, he certainly made it popular. I haven’t read a lot of his stuff. I started reading the Spenser books in 2001, going in order, trying to read a novel a year. This always felt like a strange way to work through the canon. I think of these works as “popcorn books”--I can usually finish a Spenser in one or two sittings and then immediately be ready for more. I spaced them out because I knew from experience that rushing through an author and reading too much too soon can be a bad thing. Tonight I’ll be starting A Savage Place [1981]. And, who knows, maybe after that I’ll throw my one-a-year rule out the window and dive into the next one.

Chris Knopf, the author of Hard Stop and Short Squeeze:

If you want to learn how to write clever, witty, erudite, and occasionally very powerful dialogue, all you have to do is study Robert Parker. Nobody did it better.

Robert Ferrigno, the author of Sins of the Assassin and Heart of the Assassin:

I was deeply saddened to hear that Robert B. Parker has checked out. Being good is hard enough, but he was good for 37 years, tapping into a near inexhaustible creativity. His Spenser books will be read for as long as there are readers, both for their wit and their insight into 20th-century life, and most of all for his characters--Spenser, Hawk, and Susan. The only good part of his Associated Press obit was the line “Mr. Parker died at his desk.” We should all be so lucky.

James O. Born, the author of Burn Zone:

Bob Parker had an aura that only comes with time, experience, and success. He will be missed and I doubt anyone will ever have the same kind of mojo.

David Fulmer, the author of Lost River:

Parker achieved what we all aspire to: transcendence through the simple, direct, visible, and audible. He dealt in the kind of concrete language that left no doubt about his certainty. While he cut with a dirty blade, what he carved out was all the better for it.

Reed Farrel Coleman, the co-author (with Ken Bruen) of Tower:

I had tremendous respect for the man’s work, but at times like these I always find myself thinking about more personal things. I met Mr. Parker only once, at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge during her annual Christmas party. He was a complete gentleman. He was kind enough to take a minute with me and ask about my work and wish me a happy holiday in a very crowded place full of people wanting his attention. Things like that stay with me.

Ken Bruen, the co-author (with Reed Farrel Coleman) of Tower:

For over 20 years, RP has provided me with wondrous entertainment.

The Spenser novels were so seemingly simple yet rich in their constant structure, and each time you got the new Parker, you knew you were in for hours of pure entertainment. Plus, he was a gentleman in the truest sense. A pillar of the mystery community, we stand on less solid ground with his passing.

Robert Eversz, author of the Nina Zero mysteries:

Writers are canonized in one of two ways: their works stay in print decades after initial publication, or their writing works a profound and visible influence on the generations of writers that follow. Robert B. Parker’s books will be in print long after everyone reading this has left the scene. The literary DNA of Parker’s Spenser has been passed to more writers than can be listed on a page; every wisecracking private eye published since the 1970s carries more than a little Spenser in his or her genetic code.

Christopher G. Moore, the author of Paying Back Jack:

Parker breathed life into the hard-boiled crime novel, gave it life when many people had buried it. Anyone writing in the genre, along with his many readers, will miss his humor, pathos, and sharp-as-a-razor narrative drive. Vincent Calvino owes him a Mehkong and coke on the other side.

Sean Doolittle, the author of Safer:

I’m not sure I could come up with anything more of value to say about the passing of Robert B. Parker, so I’ll pay tribute to him the best way I can think of: by offering from memory the very first line of his that I ever read. It’s the opening line of The Godwulf Manuscript: “The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.” I can’t do that very often.

Meg Gardiner, author of The Liar’s Lullaby:

There’s nothing better than spending time with Spenser, unless it’s spending time with Jesse Stone. Rest in peace, Mr. Parker.

William Kent Krueger, the author of Heaven’s Keep and the fall 2010 Cork O’Connor novel, Vermilion Drift:

Some, in passing, leave no trace. The death of Robert Parker leaves a great void. Our comfort is that his beloved creations--Spenser, Hawk, Susan, Jesse, et al.--will always be with us, his work a fine and enviable legacy.

Jack Curtin, Philadelphia-area freelance writer, sometime book critic, and author of the blog I Have Heard the Mermaids Singing:

I own every Spenser novel ever published (38 of them to date, with another two at least still in the pipeline), plus all the Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books which he introduced in more recent times. I actually became somewhat disenchanted with the Spenser stories for a bit in the middle of the long run, but I still bought and read every one and slipped easily back into the fold as Parker, Spenser, and I all grew older. Each new book was ordered immediately, devoured upon receipt--if they had a serious flaw it was that they were so easy to read, so fast to finish. Like any great writer, Bob Parker always left you satisfied and at the same time craving more.

John McFetridge, the author of Let It Ride:

When I think of Boston I always think of Robert B. Parker and [hockey player] Bobby Orr--two guys who were the very best at what they did and always made it look so easy. In The Judas Goat, Spenser and Hawk came to Montreal, and when I read that I retraced their steps. It was amazing to think of them in my town.

Hallie Ephron, the author of Never Tell a Lie:

He wrote dialogue other writers would die for.

He was very private but showed up at Kate’s Mystery Books’ Christmas party each year, and if you got to it early enough, there he’d be sitting in the easy chair, surrounded by fans, signing stacks and stacks and stacks of books that immediately got snapped up.

J.D. Rhoades, blogger the author of Breaking Cover:

If it weren’t for Robert B, Parker, I wouldn’t be a writer--but his work was so amazing that I think we can forgive him for that. He made me a mystery fan, then he made me want to write, then he showed me how to do it better.

Dick Lochte, the author of Croaked! and co-author, with Al Roker (yes, that Al Roker) of The Morning Show Murders:

Parker turned the big three of private detective novelists (Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald) into a quartet, arriving just in time to breathe new life into the then-fading genre. His early books were superb and his later ones, at the very least, were enjoyable comfort novels where we could observe Spenser, Hawk, and Susan--and Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall--banter brilliantly and blithely control their single universe. Off the page, he was kind and generous in helping many writers jumpstart their careers. Me included.

Russell Atwood, the author of Losers Live Longer:

For me, Robert B. Parker is one of the Grand Masters, up there with Erle Stanley Gardner and Agatha Christie, a true original in the field. His novel Early Autumn completely changed my idea of what the “mystery” novel could accomplish, because the challenge Spenser faces is not a puzzle of clues and evidence and whodunit, but a real-life problem of a young boy trying to become a man. After this novel, people stopped referring to Parker as the new Hammett or the new Chandler. Instead, when new authors appeared on the scene, they were fortunate if reviewers labeled them the new Parker. There are very few authors who can be said to have forever changed the genre, but Robert B. Parker is one of them, and always will be. God bless him, and long live Spenser!

Ed Gorman, the author of Ticket to Ride and the editor (with Martin H. Greenberg) of Between the Dark and the Daylight: And 27 More of the Best Crime and Mystery Stories of the Year:

I doubt I have anything original to say about Parker. He re-created the private-eye genre for my generation. He found a voice for his time, one that has been imitated so much you have to go back to his first novels to appreciate how fresh it was then. Though my favorite P.I. novelist remains Ross Macdonald, I think Parker deserves space on the same shelf as Hammett and Chandler, writers who extended and redefined the form.

Matt Hilton, the author of Dead Men’s Dust:

When asked about my writing influences, it shames me to admit that I’ve never mentioned the name of the great Robert B. Parker before. However, when looking at my list, each and every one of those [writers] I have named were influenced by him--so in effect so am I, making me one of a second generation of authors who owe Mr. Parker a huge debt of thanks.

Alex Bledsoe, the author of Burn Me Deadly:

Robert B. Parker showed me it was OK to write about tough guys with real emotions. His novels consistently bled feelings as much as punches and bullets. He put decency up against its roughest opponents, and made you believe decency could win.

I have to say, I’m still in the process of accepting Parker’s absence. My son (whose middle name is Spenser) just turned 2 last Saturday, and I’d just finished re-reading Mortal Stakes. I never met [Parker], but always hoped to.

Kevin Burton Smith, creator and editor of The Thrilling Detective
Web Site

I’ve probably always liked detective fiction--it just took Robert Parker to make me realize it.

I remember watching Mannix and later The Rockford Files and Harry O with my mom, and tearing through The Hardy Boys as fast as I could, and reading The Maltese Falcon in high school, and dipping my toes in the waters of Chandler and John D. MacDonald in my early years of art college. But I read other things as well: adventure and science fiction and MAD magazine and westerns and Tarzan and spy novels and comic books and even--GASP!--literary novels. And then, stuck for something to read one day on my way home, I picked up a copy of Early Autumn from a paperback spinner rack at the McGill Metro Station in Montreal. I liked the colors on the cover, and the blurbs made the novel sound like something I might enjoy.

But Early Autumn was something else again. A P.I. novel, sure. But it aimed for so much more. Some people evidently thought it pretentious or even silly, or at the least that Parker was over-reaching, but the character of Paul Giacomin, the throwaway child Spenser eventually decides to save, was a slap in the face to me. The book was angry and passionate and railed against just the sort of society I feared we were becoming and the sort of kid I feared I’d been--and the sort of adult I was in danger of becoming. And Spenser, hard and loyal and sensitive and romantic and brave and an inveterate wise-ass, a man both interesting and interested, was the sort of man I felt I could try to be.

I read all the Spensers I could find, and went back and re-read Chandler and Hammett, and discovered Ross Macdonald and tore through him, too. And I re-read Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder.” And this time I got it. The private-eye novel could be about almost anything. And a scared, mixed-up young man who’d been drifting could maybe raise himself up and find a better way.

Silly? Of course. Maybe even pretentious. But from that point on, I walked a little straighter, and stood a little taller. As Bruce Springsteen once wrote, I tried to learn to “walk like the heroes we thought we had to be.”

I haven’t always succeeded--none of us have--but that didn’t matter. The point was to try.

And that’s what the Spenser novels were about. Trying.

Parker wrote a lot of books over the years. His heroes never stopped trying. Some of his books were better than others, but few were downright turkeys. And the very best of them were among the best and most-loved private-eye novels of the last 40 years. He never ceased to write about the things I cared about: loyalty, friendship, honor, love, autonomy, courage, justice and mercy, and he never stooped to the cheap cynicism and dime-store nihilism that so many people mistakenly think denotes “serious writing.”

And that’s another of the things I’ll always admire about Parker. He had a contempt for sham, particularly that practiced by fellow authors who took themselves far too seriously.

While other writers would wring their hands and loudly bleat on and on about the noble romance of writing, and liken the act of producing a novel to passing a kidney stone (and too often receive praise for it), Parker simply sat down and wrote.

“I never heard a plumber complain about plumber’s block” was one of his better quips about writing, and pretty much sums up the man. He took his writing seriously, sure, but he never took himself too seriously.

He liked beer and he liked baseball, but when it was time to work, Parker sat down and got the job done. And in the act of doing that, he died.

In the end, Parker was, like Spenser himself, a professional.

I’ll miss him.


Randy Johnson said...

I only discovered Parker six or seven years ago during a bad time in my life. Spenser and Jesse and Sunny became like old friends who dropped in once or twice a year.

Mark Terry said...

As is obvious from all the comments, there are several generations of crime novelists who have been strongly influenced by Robert B. Parker, and I'm no exception. I counted it up--I've read 54 novels written by Parker, which means I'm a few short. But 54 books???!!! Good God, that's a CAREER! And what can I say? When his remaining post-death books come out, I'll snatch them up and read them. We'd be fools not to.

patrick lee said...

In reference to Robert Randisi's question as to why Parker never wrote a Hawk novel, Parker once said, I believe it is an interview with the Armchair Detective in the 1980s, that he would never write a novel about Hawk because what's in the Spenser novels is "all I know about Hawk", implying a life outside of Spenser that even Parker was not privy to.