Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Remembering Robert and Joan Parker

Bouchercon 2013’s P.I. panel, with Ali Karim on the far left.

I have very few regrets in life, but a serious one is that I never had the chance to shake hands with Robert B. Parker and thank him for his more than three decades of work as a fictionist. His writing casts such a long shadow over the entire mystery-fiction genre, thanks to his crafting of the Spenser and Hawk detective series, that whenever the subject of private-eye tales comes up, so does Parker’s name.

I was humbled recently, during Bouchercon 2013 in Albany, New York, to moderate a panel discussion about tales involving private detectives. And grateful to Judy Bobalik for selecting such erudite panelists--writers Baron Birtcher, Jack Bludis, Brendan DuBois, Charles Salzberg, and John Shepphird--to help keep the discussion lively and informative. My appreciation extended as well to author Reed Farrel Coleman, who had met Parker and discussed that encounter with me before the session began. He also talked to me about his essay in the 2012 anthology In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero (Smart Pop), edited by Otto Penzler--a book that would be of interest to any Spenser fan.

During that panel event, two names came up most often: Robert J. Randisi, who established the Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) organization and is a prolific author of both P.I. novels and books in the Western genre; and Parker, who followed in the footsteps of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, updating the private-eye story for the late 20th-century and paving the way for other, younger writers to experiment with that subgenre, among them Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Michael Koryta.

The discussion brought back memories of January 19, 2010, when I received the news that Bob Parker had passed away in the midst of writing. It also took me back to Bouchercon 2010, held in San Francisco, during which Rap Sheet editor J. Kingston Pierce and I made sure to attend a panel designed as a tribute to Robert B. Parker. Moderated by Scottish writer Russel D. McLean (The Lost Sister), and featuring his fellow scribes Mark Coggins, Dick Lochte, Declan Hughes, Lee Goldberg, and Joseph Finder. There was much to-ing and fro-ing of opinion about the quality of Parker’s later works, but all of the panelists agreed that his influence on P.I. fiction cannot be underestimated. At the end of that discussion, Boston author Finder, who’d been a friend of Parker and his wife, Joan, read an extremely moving letter that Joan had sent him, recalling what her husband’s life and work had meant to their family. Prominent in that letter was a reminder of Bob Parker’s stand against injustice and his respect for “the little guy”--a characteristic that showed up, too, in Spenser.

Later, I approached Finder in the convention hotel’s bar and told him how touched I was by Joan’s missive. I mentioned that I wanted to write a letter back to her, explaining why her late husband’s work was so important to me, and how his novels had helped shape me into the man I am today. Finder was kind enough to give me the necessary contact information, and the first thing I did upon my return to England was to pen that letter. Here’s an excerpt:
Some of the so called British Golden Age [mystery] novels had casual homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, which was a feature of the period that those books were written in (and included Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, etc.). I, however, loved the Spenser novels by your late husband; because they were the complete opposite--compassionate and liberal. I followed the adventures of Spenser and Hawk with alacrity, first discovering them in a second-hand bookstall in Cheshire (dog-eared U.S. paperbacks). Spenser and Hawk became my friends as a teenager, and I enjoyed their company and how they stood up for the underdog. I recall my excitement when I cracked the spine of The Judas Goat [1978], when Spenser and Hawk came to London, England, it was wonderful!
In response, Joan sent me a delightful e-mail note, thanking me for my letter. And after scanning it in its entirety, she posted my message on the Robert B. Parker Facebook page. Then she sent me this e-note, which provided an early insight into Bob Parker and his insistence on standing up for society’s underdogs:
Dear Ali--Thank you so much for your very kind letter. I am so touched by your story and grateful that you chose to share it with me. I will share a story with you. Bob and I went to Colby College together--and at that time it was very important to belong to a fraternity. Bob’s very close friend was one of the few black students admitted to Colby at that time. Bob was invited to join Lambda Chi Alpha--his friend was not. We were not dating at the time, but Bob was my best friend, and after a few months of living in the Lambda House, he confided in me, his outrage at what was apparently an unwritten edit of Lambda membership. That is, no blacks allowed. [W]e were both disgusted and appalled by this--but Bob acted quickly and renounced his membership--moved out of the fraternity house and made a point of registering his outrage with the national chapter of Lambda. The year was 1950--and this was a bold gesture on Bob’s part--but more than that--it was a principal held to so deeply... that he couldn’t have done otherwise. He was the most principled man I had ever met. I was impressed--I still am. Thank you again, Ali, for sharing your story... All the best, Joan
To close out my panel presentation in Albany, I read that letter out loud to the audience. While there had been much laughter during most of our discussion, this message from Joan--who passed away this June--was greeted with respectful silence. I think Spenser and Hawk would be pleased that the final words spoken during this P.I. panel event celebrated the life of their creator.

READ MORE:Bouchercon 2013--BOLO Books Recap” and “What Are We Reading Panel--Bouchercon 2013,” by Kristopher Zgorski.


Ronald Tierney said...

I was never a big fan of the tough guy P.I. and could never quite figure out why Spenser was an exception. hank you for sharing his wife's letter to you. It helps explain why I liked "tough guy" Spenser. It was his sense of fair play.

Dana King said...

I attended your panel in Albany. It was fun throughout, yet the letter from Joan Parker brought everyone back inside himself for a few minutes to appreciate what he'd done, and what he meant to a genre we all love. Her letter went a long way toward explaining why we felt that way. Even when not expressing it overtly, Parker's sense of fair play came through between every line.

Thanks for sharing that with us.

Kelly Robinson said...

What a great anecdote.

Patrick said...

Thanks very much for sharing this post, but I have one minor complaint.

"Some of the so called British Golden Age [mystery] novels had causal homophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, which was a feature of the period that those books were written in (and included Ian Fleming, Agatha Christie, etc.)."

It wasn't just the Brits, either. Let's not forget Mike Hammer and those "Japs" he loves so much. Or Chandler and the triple-threat of homophobia, misogyny, and racism you'll find in THE BIG SLEEP, which makes the mere racism of FAREWELL, MY LOVELY downright refreshing by comparison.

Ali Karim said...

Thanks for the lovely comments, and of course Patrick you are indeed right - in that era, fiction reflected those times. I only quoted the 'British end' but aware that it was not restricted to Britain - Ali