Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On the Passing of Parker

I don’t know whether this will be officially confirmed or not, but early reports say that when detective novelist Robert B. Parker died yesterday morning at age 77, he was at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, sitting at his desk, hard at work on his next novel. It sounds almost too perfect to be true, this bestselling workaholic writer slapped down by fate while in the midst of doing the job he obviously loved.

According to a spokesperson for the Cambridge Police Department, “The death was of natural causes and was not considered suspicious.”

Much has already been written today, and more will be said about Parker’s life and his significant influence on the genre we all love. (Sarah Weinman, Jim Fusilli, Gerald So, Jen Forbus, Janet Rudolph, Bill Crider, Dave White, Lee Goldberg, Randy Johnson, Bryon Quertermous, and Kevin Burton Smith are among those who have weighed in on the subject.) Other of my Rap Sheet colleagues may have encomia to offer as well. But let me try and pull a few thoughts of my own together as I digest the fact that one of the people most responsible for popularizing crime and detective fiction over the last 37 years is suddenly gone from the world.

Parker was among the first crime novelists whose work I ever read. A friend of mine in college, Karl Petersen, introduced me to his books in the late 1970s. By then, Parker was only a few entries into his remarkable series about Spenser, the single-monikered, poetry-quoting Boston private investigator, Korean War veteran, ex-state trooper, boxer, gourmet cook, and inveterate romantic. He had just seen his sixth novel and “breakout book,” Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), published by Delacorte Press, but was still putting the finishing touches on the equally memorable Early Autumn (1981), in which he demonstrated the breadth of stories that can be told within the P.I. genre. Parker would go on to compose 38 Spenser books (most recently, The Professional), a series that inspired the uneven but nonetheless terrific 1985-1988 TV series Spenser: For Hire, starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. He also penned nine novels about a small-town Massachusetts police chief named Jesse Stone (which inspired a Tom Selleck teleflick series), half a dozen novels featuring female Beantown gumshoe Sunny Randall (beginning with 1999’s Family Honor), and a few standalone works, one of which--last year’s Chasing the Bear--filled in some of the blanks of Spenser’s boyhood. Beyond those, Parker produced Poodle Springs (1989), which completed Raymond Chandler’s unfinished last Philip Marlowe novel, and he even tried his hand at a sequel to Chandler’s 1939 first novel, The Big Sleep; Parker’s book was called Perchance to Dream (1991). When the crime-fiction genre couldn’t accommodate all of his stories, Parker saddled up for a raid on the western-fiction genre, producing five novels, the last (?) of which is Blue-Eyed Devil, due out from Putnam in May.

I had only one opportunity to meet Bob Parker. It was during the summer of 1980 (not long after I interviewed Ross Macdonald in Southern California), when I was working for Portland, Oregon’s “alternative newsweekly,” Willamette Week. I think I contacted him through his publisher, asking whether I could fly out to interview him for WW’s entertainment section, Fresh Weekly. He agreed to the meeting, so I hopped a plane across the country, took a room at Boston’s downtown YMCA (not the best digs I’ve ever rented), and readied myself to meet the then up-and-coming author. The beginning of my Willamette Week piece sets the scene:
It’s 104 degrees outside on the day I meet Parker in Cambridge, Mass. While the inhabitants of Boston’s sleepy little college-oriented suburb fan themselves and watch each other for signs of bathing suit slippage, Parker (or “PAH-ka,” according to the local pronunciation) slides his hefty bulk behind a table at a small café called Tommy’s Lunch.

With a slightly pockmarked face that looks as if it could easily entertain a menacing scowl, and arms that know the feel of a bench-press, Parker doesn’t look like the type you’d want to sidle up to on a lonely night cruise through a poorly lit alleyway. But when he starts laughing into his coffee and spinning witticisms, your image of him as a hard-hearted, fist-flinging thug disappears like so much smoke from a discharged pistol.
OK, so I was trying a bit too hard for the tough-guy atmospherics. The point is that I was impressed--not only by the frappés sold at Tommy’s (my first experience with those malted milkshakes) but by the author himself, who even then was more than prepared to add his own name to the list of 20th-century crime-writing greats. Here are a few excerpts from our interview, which I tape-recorded:
J. Kingston Pierce: Why did you choose to write within the detective fiction genre? It can be limiting at times.

Robert B. Parker: I’m not sure that it’s limiting. I know that’s not an opinion solely held by you. I have felt no limitations in any particulars. It provides, as Ross Macdonald said, “a form as rigid as the sonnet.” (He has the misfortune to be overeducated, too.) It fits what I want to do. ... [T]he idea of genre, it seems to me, is not a writer’s idea but a critic’s idea.

JKP: It’s like categorizing Ross Macdonald’s works simply as mystery novels.

RBP: And, no, they really aren’t. It is only by the most remote of possibilities that Lew Archer is, in fact, a private eye.

I’m not a mystery novelist, because there’s really no mystery in my books. Someone said to me once, “Aha! I figured out who did it.” And I said, “I hope so.” Most of the time there’s never any question of who did it. I’m not interested in who did it. I’m interested in Spenser. ...

JKP: You’ve been written up favorably by book critics.

RBP: I do the best I can and pay no attention to reviews. The reviews, by and large, are favorable, so it’s easier for me to say that than if I had been just savaged every time out. But I’ve gotten bad enough reviews so I know what it’s like. Somebody in the London Times once said, it is conventional, of course, to begin reviewing me by comparing me to [Dashiell] Hammett and Chandler. And he said, “but it’s time also to raise the question of whether Mr. Parker has crossed the line between literary death and literary bankruptcy.” The British do it just right, you know. It’s such a terrific line, I’m going to use it on somebody else someday ...

It’s a kick to see your picture in Time. My father, who has since died, said, “I always expected your picture to be in there, but not for this.” I was a very “acting out” kid. (My wife’s in education, so I have all this educationese jargon.) I was sort of a thug. I was on the dean’s “other list” all through college, sort of a roughneck kid. And while everybody kept saying, “If you’d ever settle down, you’d show promise,” I don’t think many people ever thought I’d settle down. ...

JKP: Do you feel ominously overshadowed by some of your predecessors--Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, and their ilk?

RBP: No. At the moment I think Chandler is better than probably I can be. I think Hammett is not; I think I’m better than Hammett. I think I’m better than Ross Macdonald.

JKP: Well, I don’t know about that ...

RBP: I think I’m the best at what I do--alive. Not everyone will agree with that, but they’re wrong. ...

[We talked for a while about the works of other crime novelists, and Parker noted that Hammett had been working on a “straight novel” before his demise in 1961. I mentioned that Chandler had left behind his own incomplete Marlowe tale, titled The Poodle Springs Story, “in which he had his detective marrying Linda Loring and settling down to a much different kind of life.”]

RBP: I don’t know whether that would have worked or not. I periodically fool around with the idea of Spenser marrying [his girlfriend, psychologist Susan Silverman], and everyone’s appalled. They all point to what would have happened if The Poodle Springs Mystery would have been finished; it would have been awful. Look what happened to The Thin Man. ...

JKP: How much of Spenser is you? I know that’s a commonly asked question and one that most writers don’t seem able to answer. Ross Macdonald says something to the effect of “Lew Archer is me, but I’m not Lew Archer.”

RBP: Well, [Spenser] can’t know things I don’t know, obviously; no one in the books can. I don’t disagree with him. He is a romantic figure, I am not; I’m actual, I have phone bills. My stomach rumbles.

JKP: Spenser’s stomach rumbles all the time, then he goes out and makes himself some gourmet delight, the name of which I can’t pronounce.

RBP: But he eats and don’t get hungry. I don’t know where the line ceases. Certainly he’s braver than I am. He’s taller than I am; that’s my stock answer, that he’s taller than I am. But he’s deprived of things that I would not give up: marriage, children--he has no sons, for instance, I have two. I don’t want to live alone, I want to live with [my wife] Joan. I’d much rather be me than him. I wouldn’t want to be him, and I guess if he were real he’d probably rather be me.
Although we corresponded for a couple of years after that, I never had another chance to speak with Parker (shown below in 1980). Over the subsequent three decades, I tried a couple of times to contact him through his publisher or his Web site, but he never got back to me.

Meanwhile, my reading of Parker’s fiction dropped off. Significantly. He was just so prolific, I couldn’t keep up. And too many of his Spenser stories started to sound, well, similar to one another. Even a few of his non-Spenser books developed the same rhythms, including the first of his Old West novels, Gunman’s Rhapsody (2001), which managed to reinvent Dodge City lawman and gambler Wyatt Earp as Spenser with chaps and a six-shooter. For somebody, like me, who had so enjoyed the persistent novelty of Parker’s early yarns, it was disappointing to see similarities arising over time. And to notice how the later books were puffed up in size with wide margins and line spacing, and sometimes were too lightly copy-edited.

Nonetheless, Bob Parker remained a master at producing clever dialogue, and his prose was often so smooth, you might find yourself reading 30 pages of it without being cognizant of time passing. You could tell in reading his work that there were few things he enjoyed more in life than putting words on a blank page.

When I read about his death this morning, I was reminded of an incident during our long-ago meeting that I hadn’t found space to mention in my Willamette Week article. After we had concluded our conversation at Tommy’s Lunch, Parker offered to drive me to Harvard Square, where I could catch a subway train back downtown. He was driving some sort of pre-SUV-craze SUV, and as we sped down the Cambridge thoroughfares, I noticed him glancing frequently toward the crowded, sun-blessed sidewalks. At one point, his divided attention almost led us into an accident as he stopped abruptly behind a stalled vehicle. As Parker pulled around that car and back into traffic, he volunteered something on the order of “You know, if I ever have to die, it’s going to be because I was checking out beautiful women on the streets. Not a bad way to go, really.”

Not a bad way, at all, Bob. But if it couldn’t be that, then dying at your desk, engrossed in writing, might have been the best alternative possible.

UPDATE: The New York Times quotes Helen Brann, who had been Parker’s literary agent for 37 years, as saying that the cause of his death “was a heart attack. ... She said Mr. Parker had been thought to be in splendid health, and that he died at his desk, working on a book. He wrote every single day, she said.”

READ MORE:Robert B. Parker’s Novels Saved Detective Fiction,” by Tom Nolan (The Wall Street Journal); “Robert B. Parker,” by Jim Winter (Edged in Blue); “Requiem for a Tough Guy: Robert B. Parker, 1932-2010,” by Jake Hinkson (The Night Editor); “Bipartisan Mourning for Robert B. Parker,” by E.J. Dionne (The Washington Post); “Robert B. Parker Left a Mark on the Detective Novel,” by Sarah Weinman (Los Angeles Times); “Robert B. Parker, R.I.P.,” by Martin Edwards (‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’); “Finest Kind,” by Clayton Moore (Bang!).


Anonymous said...

Nice remembrance. Thanks. But your link to the Boston Herald obit spells Spenser with a "c". I think Parker would have had a nice chuckle over that.

J. Kingston Pierce said...

Whoops! That's what happens when you make these changes late at night. Thanks for pointing out the error. It has been fixed.


Joe Barone said...

I don't know anything about whatever tragedies Parker's personal life may have involved, but can you think of any greater blessing than being able to spend your life making a living doing what you want to do and then dying at work, at your desk?

I enjoyed most of Parker's books. May he rest in peace.

Clea Simon said...

I like to think nobody here in Boston would have made that mistake. If I may add - my short, day-of tribute from Boston Globe bookblog:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I'd like to read the whole piece.

Matt said...

I once met this guy at a family BBQ. I had no idea who he was until we finally left our friends house. I even spoke with him at length on various political figures. What a spin out.