Thanks, Robert B. Parker.
One of my favorite authors died Monday, Jan. 18. His name was Robert B. Parker, as you no doubt gathered from the first sentence of this blog. I didn’t find out he was dead until Tuesday evening, after I came home from work. I was depressed. A lot of my favorites have died in recent years: Mickey Spillane (a boyhood hero I got a chance to meet as a man); Tony Hillerman, famous for books about the Navajo Tribal Police; Stuart Kaminsky, famous for his novels about policemen in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia—and now Parker.
I do wish my favorite writers would stop dying. It reminds me I’m mortal. That’s annoying.
On Wednesday, Jan. 20, I hit the Seal Beach Mary Wilson Library Branch during a work break in hope of finding something of Parker’s I had not read yet. There was book for teens (“Edenville Owls”) and a novel about Wyatt Erpp (“Gunman’s Raphsody”); neither was the sort of book I’d like to read. I checked the Friends of the Library Bookstore. No new Parker. I went back to work.
At home, I checked out Robert B. Parker’s Web site and was delighted to see he left quite few books I hadn’t gotten around to reading just yet. Parker was a prolific writer—according to his New York Times obit, he had more than 60 published in his lifetime. That sounds about right. The good news: he was so prolific that he’d churned out several books since I’d last read one of his Spenser private eye stories.
So I have a few more good hours to spend on his private eye novels and his tales of small town police chief Jesse Stone. Chief Stone’s town of Paradise, Mass., is so small that the police department has no detective bureau. Oddly enough, it attracts a disproportionate number of serial killers and mob hit men—but small towns in detective fiction seem to suffer from that problem. (Some of the best police novels written by civilians have been set in small towns. Maybe because it is more plausible to have a detective working on a single case when the town only has one murder a year.)
I must confess, as the crime reporter for the Sun Newspapers, that I’m relieved Seal Beach doesn’t hold much attraction for professional killers. (The amateurs are bad enough.) They have their place in fiction—a story is only as strong as its villain—but in real life I prefer they keep as far as possible from the community I live in. These streets are seldom mean and I like it that way.
Back to Parker: He was a Raymond Chandler imitator—overtly and proudly. He even finished Chandler’s last, unfinished novel “Poodle Springs.” (Frankly, it read like a finished first draft of Chandler. Then again, I don’t know how many drafts Chandler wrote.) Parker’s plots were usually fairly straight-forward; few of his books qualify as whodunits (although “Walking Shadow” ends with a twist that left me astonished). His stories were, in fact, formulaic. You could always count on a professional leg breaker showing up to try to intimidate the hero. He usually considered this a clue that someone he had spoken with was not all that honorable. Some people would say the stories were clichéd—certainly the structure often was, yet he could render some remarkable and surprising variations on his themes within the predictable structure. “Walking Shadow” contains one of the most realistic portraits of a stalker I’ve ever read.
In one respect, Parker was superior to Chandler: Raymond Chandler made up his stories as he went along and often had no clue as to why things happened. His stories, therefore, don’t hold together too logically and there are sometimes unresolved issues left over. Parker’s stories are so simple that logic flaws are nearly impossible in most cases. (Though you’ll do yourself a favor if you skip “A Catskill Eagle.”)
In a way, it doesn’t really matter if Parker was good or bad. If you’ve read Parker more than once, you probably enjoyed reading him. (Why read him more than once if you didn’t enjoy it?) He has a new book coming out in late February. One newspaper account reports there are two more novels waiting to be published. At the risk of sounding cynical, I’ll believe that when I see them on the shelves. His Web site does not mention his recent death. If you haven’t read him, I don’t know that it is my place to encourage you to do so. Besides, some people hate detective fiction and they are entitled to that dislike. We’re not talking about great literature here—not by any means. It was Mr. Parker’s job to entertain people and he earned a living doing it for more than 30 years. He died while working at his desk. Not a bad obit, really. He gave people pleasure and he died on the job. The rest of us could do a lot worse. If I’m lucky, that’ll be my obit—preferably a lot of years from now, thanks.
I’ve gone online and searched the Orange County Public Library catalog at ocpl.org and placed holds on some of his books that I haven’t read yet. I’m going to miss Parker’s stories. Thanks, Mr. Parker, for a lot of hours of fun—including the hours of free time I’ll spend reading the last of your books. Maybe I’ll even read the books your wrote that were aimed at kids. I might learn something about writing. It’s always possible. Even if I don’t learn anything, I expect to have some harmless fun.