Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Requiem for a Tough Guy: Robert B. Parker 1932-2010
Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser novels, died unexpectedly Monday morning. He was 77 years old. I first discovered Parker in high school when the natural process of Hammett to Chandler to MacDonald finally led me to Parker. For many people, his detective series focusing on a smart-ass private eye named for the English poet was the natural heir to the great tradition of crime-fighting American heroes.
Parker was his own man, though, and Spenser stood apart from his forefathers Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. When Spenser arrived in The Godwulf Manuscript in the seventies he still smacked a bit of Marlowe and Archer, but as the years went on he began to resemble more and more the man who created him. Parker had a happy--if complicated--marriage to a woman with whom he was almost obsessively in love, so Spenser didn't stay the rugged loner very long. He met Susan Silverman, a romanticized version of Joan Parker just as Spenser was a romanticized version of her husband. Their relationship is the center of the series, a forty year examination of the challenges and glories of monogamy. As Parker had children--two sons, both gay men who work in the arts--Spenser became something of a father figure to two gay men--one a dancer, the other a cop.
Parker had a charmed creative life in which he was able to spin out exciting versions of himself and those he loved and place them within a fictional framework where things like honor and understanding were possible. This is not to say that his novels couldn't be sad--among his best books are a trilogy of novels about Spenser's failed attempts to help a prostitute named April Kyle--but they are redemptive in a way that Chandler would have found unimaginable. Parker's worldview could be warm and optimistic but it was haunted with a realization of the limitations of empathy. No man as good as Spenser ever existed, but Parker created him not as an expression of realism but as an aspiration. That's what a hero is, a secular saint, an unachievable ideal that somehow makes you feel as if such integrity were possible. Being inspirational while being funny and delivering tightly constructed fight scenes is more than most writers achieve.
I will miss Robert B Parker more than I can say. One of the consistent joys of my life was the annual fall release of the new Spenser book. It's tragic to contemplate an end to Spenser, but Parker leaves us 38 Spenser novels. They range from half-dashed entertainments to pop culture gems. He also wrote nine Jesse Stone novels, six Sunny Randall books, two Philip Marlowe books, four Westerns, and seven freestanding novels. That's a hell of a lot of writing. It's also a hell of a gift to his readers. His death is sad for those of us who have found years of comfort in his witty and wise crime novels, but one can only smile when learning that he died at his writing desk. He went out in a blaze of glory. I wrote an extended appreciation of Parker last year. You can read Notes on a Tough Guy's Legacy here.