Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Death of a Crime Writer

(Editor’s note: In the two weeks since author Robert B. Parker suddenly passed away, there’s been a significant outpouring of appreciation for what he contributed to the detective-fiction genre. Most of that has come from American writers, but not exclusively. The following tribute was penned by Jim Napier, a mystery and crime fiction critic who lives in Quebec, Canada, and contributes to the Sherbrooke Record.)

In the literary landscape of crime fiction, Robert B. Parker stood as tall and proud as a Sequoia, firm and never wavering, impossible to miss and commanding our admiration and respect. But on Monday, January 18, the 77-year-old Parker died of a heart attack while sitting at his computer in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, working on the most recent of his numerous novels. Although it came far too soon for his many readers, it was a predictable and fitting end to an impressive life.

Over the preceding 37 years, Parker had written 74 books, some award-winning, almost all of them bestsellers. The bane of creative-writing instructors, he was famous for writing without an outline or notes, even without a story line when he started a book; instead, he would begin with a simple opening premise and just see where it led him. Yet Parker was a disciplined writer, turning out five pages a day (others have said 10) for 50 weeks per year, giving his readers up to three novels annually. As he put it, “I don’t get better by taking my time. My second draft is not an improvement, so I don’t do one.” Hardly good advice for most aspiring writers, but in Parker’s case it served him well.

After a stint with the U.S. Army in Korea during the 1950s, Parker entered Boston University, where his doctoral thesis -- written in just two weeks -- explored the world of such hard-boiled crime-fiction writers as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. He might easily have remained an academic, but Parker chose instead to swim in the deep end of the pool: he abandoned teaching to turn out increasingly subtle yet readable novels that both developed the detective-fiction genre and entertained millions of fans for the next four decades.

Well into his writing career, Parker was approached by the administrators of the Raymond Chandler estate, who asked him to complete Poodle Springs, a manuscript left unfinished at the time of Chandler’s death in 1959. He did so (the resulting book was published in 1989), and then followed that up with an entirely new Philip Marlowe novel, Perchance to Dream (1991), a sequel to Chandler’s 1939 first novel, The Big Sleep. Both are tributes to his mentor, affectionately and impeccably written.

Although firmly in the hard-boiled camp, Parker gave the literary world a kinder, more romantic and far more complex hero than had most of the writers who came before him. His 37 tales about a Boston private eye known only as Spenser (which inspired a popular late-1980s TV series) include subplots that revolve around the P.I.’s private life, and show a gentler, nuanced figure (though he could be tough when he had to be) who treats women as women rather than as objects, and knows his way around a kitchen. And as society evolved, Parker transformed along with it: when his two sons acknowledged that they were gay, Parker found a way to explore that fact through his novels, and did so with insight and sensitivity.

While continually adding to the Spenser oeuvre, in the late 1990s Parker began to pen a couple of other series, including half a dozen stories featuring Sunny Randall, a female Boston ex-cop turned gumshoe. Although some people criticized the protagonist as merely Spenser in drag, after awhile the series took on a unique persona, and now stands on its own.

Branching out in other directions, Parker also wrote nine rather darker novels about Jesse Stone, a flawed small-town police chief based in New England, and more than a dozen standalone works.

Let’s be clear: Parker’s books don’t qualify as great literature, whatever that may be. But they are well-written, entertaining yarns that often raise important issues, which is all Parker ever sought or claimed for them. If his plots sometimes seem a bit mundane, it’s because he dealt with events involving believable people caught up in the ebb and flow of real life. And his seemingly light, breezy style often masks some tough questions more frequently found in so-called literary novels. Parker’s skillful use of a first-person viewpoint and sharp, witty dialogue recalls the best of the American hard-boileds, yet his books are unmistakably of our time. In the last Spenser novel published before his death (2009’s The Professional), the hero never uses his gun, and only uses his fists once, to avoid having a conflict escalate into gunfire. True to the hard-boiled mantra, the resolution of the conflict is by cosmic, rather than legal, means: a killer is made to pay for his crimes and justice is served, but in a way that the judicial system could never accommodate. It is a book that profoundly explores manipulation, guilt and accountability in the context of shifting social mores.

Not only did he receive two Edgar Awards for his novels, but in 2002 Parker was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, an honor he shared with such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, John Le Carré, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James and Stephen King. The event acknowledged his place in the pantheon of great crime writers. Yet throughout his career he remained approachable and helpful to emerging authors.

Parker’s influence in the crime-writing fraternity has been enormous. With Spenser he liberated the character of the hard-boiled protagonist from the one-dimensional portrayals of the 1930s and ’40s, and transformed him into a likable, even admirable figure: an ex-boxer with an addiction to cinnamon doughnuts, who was also an accomplished cook, a dog lover, and not least of all, a man who could admire beautiful women while staying true to his partner -- all without weakening his hero’s masculinity. This opened the door for other writers to take similar paths, adding to the richness of the genre. Parker’s impact has been acknowledged by such renowned crime writers as Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane and Harlan Coben. In a 2007 interview with Atlantic Monthly, Coben said that “When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”

Survived by his wife, Joan (to whom he dedicated almost all of his books), and his two sons, David and Daniel, Robert B. Parker left the literary world a legacy that, happily, will continue to shape detective fiction for a very long time.

(Author photo by John Earle. Used with permission.)

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A bit late to the party, but Parker's early work may have a bit more literary merit than is apparent. I particularly recall a passage in Mortal Stakes in which Spenser is trying to make sense of the case while making spaghetti sauce. It's as neat a bit of stream of consciousness as you could ask for.

Saturday, February 13, 2010 at 12:27:00 PM PST  

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