Aug 262014
 
Although the first four (of seven) television movies inspired by Robert B. Parker’s novels about Boston private eye Spenser have been available in DVD format for some time now, the 1985-1988 ABC-TV series, Spenser: For Hire, starring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks, has been gathering dust, waiting for its own release. But it appears that wait is finally coming to an end.

TV Shows on DVD reports that Warner Archive Collection recently offered a novel spin on the widely publicized ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in order to announce the coming debut of Spenser: For Hire--The Complete First Season (22 episodes). “The title isn’t up for pre-order yet, so we don’t have a date or a cost for you right now,” the site explains. However, the cover art can be seen in a video here.

UPDATE: There’s now a link to Spenser: For Hire--The Complete First Season on the Warner Archive site. The set is priced at $39.95.
Oct 022013
 
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.
Jun 132013
 
This is sad news, quoted from The Boston Globe:
Joan Parker, the philanthropist and widow of mystery writer Robert B. Parker, has died. Parker, a longtime Cambridge [Massachusetts] resident, died Tuesday, according to Helen Brann, a longtime friend and agent to Robert B. Parker. Joan Parker had been diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer in August 2011, and was receiving treatment. A tireless fundraiser for a host of different charities, Parker was barely slowed by her illness. Last month, she co-chaired the annual fund-raiser of PFLAG, a national nonprofit supporting parents, families, and friends of lesbians and gays. (Parker’s two children, Dan and David, are both gay.)
You’ll recall that Bob Parker, who created the very popular fictional Boston private eye Spenser, died in January 2010 at age 77--but not before repeatedly dedicating his many novels to his wife, the former Joan Hall, whom he fell in love with during a freshman dance at Maine’s Colby College in 1950, while they were both students there. The pair were married in 1956. She went to become the inspiration for the character of Spenser’s longtime girlfriend, Susan Silverman, a school guidance counselor turned psychologist.

I hadn’t expected Joan Parker to perish quite so soon after her husband’s demise. I never met her (though I did once share frappés with author Parker), but I was always given to understood that she was a woman of tremendous drive, and not one to succumb easily to the demands of death. Fortunately, she was also committed to continuing her husband’s legacy, and put the Spenser series into the capable, respectful hands of Ace Atkins before she passed away.

(Hat tip to Kevin R. Tipple.)

READ MORE:Robert B. Parker Is Dead! Long Live Robert B. Parker!,” by Zac Bissonnette (The Boston Globe Magazine).
Feb 142013
 

No, that's not the name of a high-powered law firm. It's a summary of a book that may be a bit off the regular reading path of my visitors here. It's a collection of new essays by some of today's best writers of P.I. mysteries about another very important writer, the late Robert B. Parker, creator of the Boston P.I., Spenser. The book, "In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero", is edited by Otto Penzler, of the Mysterious Press and the Mysterious Bookshop.

Readers of this blog know that I don't write about hard-boiled P.I. books very often - they're really not my speed. But it is also undeniably true that Robert B. Parker has been tremendously influential on many of today's authors who are in what might properly be called the Hammett-Chandler-Parker tradition. The table of contents of "In Pursuit of Spenser" includes familiar names such as Ace Atkins (who has been chosen to continue the Spenser series), Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, Max Allan Collins, Parnell Hall and S. J. Rozan. There are essays on different aspects of Parker's skills, Spenser's character and about some of the other regulars in the series. There's a good introduction from Otto Penzler. And there's a bonus treat: "Spenser: A Profile," originally written by Parker for the Mysterious Bookshop, now available to a wider readership.

"In Pursuit of Spenser" has been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical this year by the Mystery Writers of America. It has been published by the Smart Pop imprint of the alliteratively-named Ben Bella Books, which was kind enough to provide me with a copy for this review. If you enjoy Spenser, or if you merely want to learn more about an important author in the wider mystery field, you will enjoy this book.

Dec 122012
 
Author Robert B. Parker may have died almost three years ago, but his literary legacy lives on. I already knew that Ace Atkins is continuing Parker’s series about Boston private eye Spenser (the next installment of which, due out in May 2013, will be titled Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland) and that motion-picture producer Michael Brandman is composing additional titles in Parker’s Jesse Stone series (including Robert B. Parker’s Fool Me Twice, which appeared this last fall).

But what I hadn’t realized until earlier today was that Parker’s 19th-century Western series featuring Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole isn’t riding off into the sunset either. Actor/writer Robert Knott, who--with fellow performer Ed Harris--adapted and produced the 2008 film Appaloosa (based on Parker’s 2005 novel of the same name), has penned at least one new Hitch/Cole novel, Robert B. Parker’s Ironhorse, which is scheduled for release by U.S. publisher Putnam on January 8 of next year.

After all of this, can we expect to see further adventures for Parker’s other Beantown gumshoe, Sunny Randall? Don’t bet against it.
Nov 082012
 


I have to admit, I stopped reading Robert B. Parker's novels several years ago, and as a result I missed his last few Spenser novels. I may have to go back and catch up on them, because I just read ROBERT B. PARKER'S LULLABY, the first Spenser pastiche by Ace Atkins, and it's given me a taste for the series again.

I've never read anything else by Atkins, although I've been meaning to. Turns out he was a good choice to continue this series, because LULLABY really does read a lot like Parker's work, especially the earlier books in the series. Spenser is hired, sort of, by a 14-year-old girl to find out who really murdered her mother four years earlier. A family friend was convicted of the crime and is in prison, but the girl doesn't believe he's guilty and wants her mom's real killers brought to justice. Of course, things don't turn out to be quite as simple as they appear at first.

The plot and the way Atkins handles it are very Parker-like. He has a great handle on the characters, too, especially Spenser and Hawk. The main differences are stylistic and pretty minor. Atkins' paragraphs are a little longer than Parker's. There's not quite as much dialogue. The banter doesn't seem quite as witty to me, but it's still pretty darned witty. If this book had been published under Parker's name, there's a good chance I would have accepted it as his work, although I should point out that I've always been just a casual reader of Parker's books and hardly qualify as a scholar on such matters.

The main thing to say about LULLABY is that I liked it and I'm looking forward to reading any other Spenser novels that Atkins writes.
Oct 102012
 
The last time I felt like this reading a book was when I was reading The Monkey's Raincoat by Robert Crais.
When I read that debut of PI Elvis Cole I was so pleased to see someone understood the greatness of Robert B. Parker's Spenser series but managed to give it his own twist. Through the years Crais developed his own voice and Cole became more and more unique. That bodes well for the future of James Phoenix and Fenway Burke.
In this novel we follow PI Fenway Burke's defeat at the hands of a dangerous assassin and his return in a way that reminded me of Spenser's defeat at the hands of the Grey Man (in Small Vices). There's also his meeting with Harvard lawyer Megan who gives Susan Silverman a run for her money when it comes to intelligence.
The surprises here are that they actually get married and start a family, taking the idea of the Spenser series (a tough guy involved in a steady relationship with an intelligent woman) to the next level.
I really enjoyed how Fenway schooled himself to be more of an intellectual equal to Megan.
There's a few Hawk-like guys in here as well, Ax and . They're not Pike or Hawk yet, but I'm sure they'll grow on me in the novels to come. I do think I like Fenway's dogs better than Pearl.
I liked the Spenser references that will appeal to the hardcore fans, like a Starbucks versus Dunking Donuts discussion for instance.
One of my favorite books this year... Get it here.
May 012012
 
This week, I devote my Kirkus Reviews column to an assessment of Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby--the first installment in Ace Atkins’ new series of Spenser novels--and In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero, a collection of essays about Parker’s work and life, edited by Otto Penzler.

Of Lullaby, I write in part:
... Atkins spends so much time trying to capture the wit and melody of Parker’s prose, that it can be hard to spot his peculiar fingerprints on Lullaby. Some of Atkins’ contributions may be perceived only by veteran readers of Spenser’s adventures, as they’re subtle allusions to the gumshoe’s original outings. At one point, for instance, Spenser recalls watching Fourth of July fireworks with Brenda Loring, a “nubile secretary” he dated before falling for Susan Silverman (“I wondered what ever became of her…”). Elsewhere he considers working on a long-neglected chunk of wood that he probably last took his carving knife to in Parker’s first couple of books. And Spenser has started to drink Amstel Light beer again, once a staple of his diet.

What’s also distinctive about
Lullaby, though, is a seemingly renewed sense of interest in Boston as a setting.
You can look up--and, I hope, enjoy--my whole Kirkus piece here.
Apr 152012
 

Not long after Bob Parker’s untimely death, Otto Penzler invited me to contribute to a Festschrift in his honor. (That’s a German word, and it means a sort of tribute album in the form of critical essays.) It was not a request I felt I could deny, and I wrote a piece; the book, In Pursuit of Spenser, was recently published by Ben Bella Books, and boasts contributions by a distinguished array of crime writers, including one by Parker himself.

Here’s what I wrote:

Interviewer: Why do you think your work is so popular?
Robert B. Parker: I dunno. I think people just like the way it sounds.

That’s a wonderfully quotable exchange, and I wish I could be sure I was quoting it correctly. I wasn’t there when these words were spoken. It was passed on to me second- or third-hand, but what I heard rang a bell, and I can still hear the echo.

Because I believe he got it right. Why is everything Bob Parker wrote so popular? I think we just like the way it sounds.

#

Ruth Cavin was a great editor who left us too soon, although not before she’d lived ninety-two years. She stressed the great importance of the writer’s voice. It was, Ruth said, as unique as a thumbprint, and the chief factor in the success or failure of a piece of writing. And it was inherent in the writer. You couldn’t learn it. You couldn’t do a hell of a lot to develop it, or refine it. What you had to do was find it, which was task enough.

And what you found might or might not be worth the effort.

#

We think of voice more in connection with the performing arts. An actor has a voice, and it amounts to something rather more than pitch and register and tone; it’s what makes us listen intently or puts us to sleep.

“I could listen to him read the phone book,” we say with admiration.

A musician has a voice. The touch of a particular set of fingers on the keys of a piano, the notes that come out of the bell of a horn—they are individual, and sometimes unmistakably so. You might, if you practice enough, and if you’re talented to begin with, play the same sounds Louis Armstrong played. But they won’t sound the same.

A singer has a voice. One can almost say that a singer is a voice, that anything learned—phrasing, breath control—merely allow the true voice to be heard.

A story, if I may. An aspiring singer went to audition for a great vocal coach. While the last notes died out, the coach sat for a few moments in silence. Then he strode to the window and threw it open, motioning to the singer to join him.

“Listen,” he said. “Do you hear the crow?”

“Yes.”

“Caw caw caw. You hear him?”

“I do.”

“The crow,” the old man said, “thinks his song is beautiful.”

#

But writing is silent, isn’t it? It’s an act performed in silence, and its creations are appreciated in a similar silence. (The medium of the audiobook is an exception, in that one reads it not with one’s eyes but with one’s ears, and there are accordingly two voices involved, those of the writer and the narrator.)

“As silent as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean,” wrote Coleridge, in his own unmistakable voice. We do in fact hear the voice of the writer, all the silence notwithstanding. It falls upon the inner ear. We hear it.

#

Voice. Isn’t it just another word for style?

No.

Different people will define style differently. But I’m writing this, so I get to use my definition. Which goes like this:

Style is that façade a writer erects to conceal his voice.

#

If Bob Parker wrote a phone book, people would read it.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But his voice did have magical properties. On two separate occasions I picked a book of his off a library shelf, just intending to read a few pages and get an idea of what he was up to in this latest effort.

Fat chance. A few pages? A couple of paragraphs and he had me, and both times I read the book all the way through to the end.

(This would have been less likely had the books had more heft to them, but they were short. There wasn’t all that much in the way of incident, nor were all that many words used to tell the tale. In an effort to keep the novels from looking as short as they were, Parker’s publishers typically used larger type and wider margins. And they leaded out the text, so that there was often enough space between the lines of a Spenser novel to contain another whole book. The net effect of this typographic enhancement was to make the books even easier to read—as if that were necessary.)

From the opening lines of The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser’s first-person voice was a delight to that inner ear. Spenser would become more his own man over time, and less a Back Bay Philip Marlowe, but that’s to be expected in a series of any length; the character undergoes a process of self-realization. But Spenser was Spenser from the jump, and his voice didn’t change all that much.

And what makes us want to hear it? What makes us listen, even when that mellifluous voice is telling us things we aren’t all that eager to hear, even when the story’s too thin and the premise too frail and Spenser’s task insufficiently challenging?

One ought to be able to take that auctorial voice apart and explain why it does what it does. And maybe someone can do this, but not I. All I can do is say that I think the man got it right:

We like the way it sounds.

#

I’ve had occasion to think about Bob Parker’s irresistible voice lately, upon the announcement that two writers have been approved by Parker’s estate to continue his two most popular series. Ace Atkins will write new books about Spenser, starting next month with Lullaby, while Michael Brandman’s Jesse Stone novel, Killing the Blues, came out last fall.

I was surprised when I learned this, but decided on reflection that I had no reason to be. Writers have been taking up the lance of a fallen colleague for a century or more. In today’s publishing climate, beset by its own equivalent of global warming, death means never having to say you’re done writing. The market dominance of brand–name authors, the glut of books by living authors with acknowledged or unacknowledged “collaborators” or out-and-out ghostwriters, and the pastiche/homage of writers producing prequels and sequels to classic works, all combine to make a continuation of Parker’s work an appealing proposition to all concerned.

Though perhaps not quite all. I’m not sure it’s such a great deal for the reader.

#

First, though, there’s the question of what Parker himself would think of it. Is he likely to be spinning in his grave at the very idea?

I didn’t know the man anywhere near well enough to venture a guess. Ego could tug a writer in either direction; he might be reluctant to see his characters follow him to the grave, or he might be loathe to see others putting words into their mouths.

But any objection from this particular writer would seem to stand on shaky ground. Parker completed Poodle Springs, a Philip Marlowe novel that Raymond Chandler left unfinished at his death; later, he wrote a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep, with the felicitous title Perchance to Dream. The man’s motives could not have been higher, as he admired Chandler hugely, wrote his doctoral dissertation about him, and quite clearly drew Spenser more from Marlowe than any other source.

And I suppose the books are all right, although one is never in doubt for a moment that another hand than Chandler’s is at work here. (In Perchance, Parker includes flashback passages from The Big Sleep, set off typographically so you’ll know they’re Chandler’s. This was remarkably daring on his part, I always thought, and not necessarily the best idea he ever had.)

Spinning in his grave? No, probably not.

#

There are, we should note, some reasons to engage a new author to take over a series. And not just the most obvious one (“We can sell some books! We can make some money!”).

I remember questioning the decision to bring out new Nero Wolfe titles after Rex Stout’s death. Some years previously, I’d written two mysteries in which the narrator, one Chip Harrison, plays Archie to a road company Nero Wolfe named Leo Haig. John McAleer, Rex Stout’s biographer, told me that Stout had indeed been aware of the books, and, like Queen Victoria, was not amused. If Stout bristled at pastiche, how would he feel about downright usurpation of his characters? I figured he could only hate the idea, and I wondered at his family’s acquiescence to the proposition.

Then a publisher friend pointed out that it takes a supply of new books to keep the old titles in print. Sales of the Wolfe books had dwindled since their author’s death; without new works by a fresh hand, the publisher was inclined to let them go out of print. But if another writer in the person of Robert Goldsborough were to step in, the original books would not only remain in print but would be completely repackaged, with various outside writers commissioned to provide introductions.

All of this sounds itself like a repackaging of We can sell some books! We can make some money! and there may well be a self-serving element here. But isn’t it safe to presume the author would prefer his own books to remain in print? Wouldn’t he want to increase their sales?

#

Sometimes posthumous sequels work. Sometimes they don’t.

And opinions differ. One online reviewer gives high marks to Parker’s Poodle Springs; a comment follows, decrying the book as a tragedy and saying the publisher should have issued Chandler’s four chapters and let it go at that.

I must have read half a dozen of the Oz books when I was a boy, and would have read more if I’d had the chance. While I didn’t notice the difference, I remember my mother thought the later books by Ruth Plumly Thompson weren’t up to the standard set by L. Frank Baum. (Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and the series continues to this day; the most recent entry, licensed by the Baum family, is Trouble Under Oz, by Sherwood Smith.)

Series continue after the original author’s death for the same reason that they become popular in the first place; a reader, having had a pleasant experience, wants to repeat it, wants to renew his acquaintance with a character or characters whose company he’s enjoyed. If the author who provided that initial experience is on hand, so much the better. If not, well, too bad; as long as the characters are present, doing what they do, does it really matter who’s telling us about it?

It doesn’t seem to have mattered much to the young readers who wanted to go back to Oz. Because that’s indeed what they wanted, to re-enter that magical realm, and they didn’t much care—or notice—who it was that unlocked the door for them. Frank Baum may have created that world, but other writers seemed capable of accessing it, or some acceptable variant thereof. And that’s what the books were about, not Baum’s perceptions, not his voice.

On the other hand, without departing from the world of juvenile fantasy fiction, try to imagine a later writer taking up the mantle of Lewis Carroll and turning out a third Alice book. It wouldn’t astonish me to learn that the attempt has been made, because there’s nothing that someone somewhere is not fool enough to try, but aren’t you happy you don’t have to read it?

#

I was an impassioned fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, and read them all more than once. I read the first of Robert Goldsborough’s sequels, and found it troubling. Stout’s auctorial voice, and the voice he gave to narrator Archie Goodwin, was more than distinctive; it was to my mind unique, and it had everything to do with the books’ success. One wanted to hear that voice, even as one wanted to spend more time in the rooms of that magical brownstone house, and in the presence of those perfectly realized characters.

Goldsborough came to his task more as a fan than an author. He wrote the first book, Murder in E Minor, for the private pleasure of his mother, who longed to read more about her favorite characters; it was his own first novel, and wasn’t published until 1986, eight years after he’d written it. By 1994 he’d published six more, and that was that. A decade later he began writing books of his own.

As I said, I found Murder in E Minor unsettling. It almost felt as though Stout had written it, and the narrator almost sounded like Archie. There was one stunning glitch, in that Archie smoked a cigarette or two in the book’s course, and that was about as startling as if Lillian Jackson Braun’s Qwilleran were to whip out his pen knife and geld a cat. A few thousand readers called this to the author’s attention, and in the books that followed we heard no more of Archie and tobacco.

But the rest, as I said, was almost right. And, naturally enough, Goldsborough improved as he went on. He became a better writer, as one is apt to do with practice, and he also became better at sounding like Stout, and at putting Wolfean words into the mouths of his characters.

It’s my impression that members of the Wolfe Pack, that enduring sodality of ardent West 35th Street Irregulars, have varying degrees of enthusiasm for the post-mortem Wolfe books. They did bestow the Nero award on the first book, and surely read the others. The consensus seems to be that they’re glad to have these seven further adventures, but do not for a moment confuse them with the genuine article.

I read the first, as I’ve said, and one or two others. For all I know, they may have been more suspenseful and more strongly plotted than the originals, but I’d never read Rex Stout for plot or suspense. I read, like everybody else, for the pleasure of the writing and the charm of the characters, and Robert Goldsborough was not entirely lacking in those areas. He worked very hard at sounding like Rex Stout, and at letting his narrator sound and act like Archie Goodwin.

Rex Stout, of course, never worked at it. He didn’t have to.

#

And there, I submit, is the problem. Ace Atkins is a fine writer, and at least as gifted in plot construction as Parker himself. (Here’s a Spenser plot: 1. A client brings Spenser a problem. 2. Spenser studies the situation and figures it out. 3. Spenser addresses the problem and brings it to a successful conclusion. There’s a lot of snappy dialogue and some of the best physical action anyone ever wrote, but those three sentences pretty much cover it in terms of plot.)

I don’t know what Ace Atkins has going for him in the way of mimetic ability, but I’m willing to believe he’ll do a fine job of sounding like Parker. I gather he’s a Parker fan even as Parker was a Chandler fan, and Goldsborough a Rex Stout fan We can assume he understands Spenser and Hawk and Susan, and will know what words to put in their mouths, and how they’ll react to the situations in which he places them.

I can’t make all of the same assumptions about Michael Brandman, which whose writing I’m not familiar. As I understand it, his background is TV, and he worked closely with Parker on the adaptations of the Jesse Stone stories for that medium. One might infer that his strengths lie in plot and story construction, but there’s no reason he might not be able to provide a reasonable facsimile of the Parker voice.

#

Here’s the thing: No matter how good a job either of these fellows do, no matter how much skill and sensitivity they bring to the table, and no matter how much thought and effort they apply, all they can attempt to provide is an imitation of a genuine original.

I guess there’s a place for that sort of thing. Look at all the Elvis impersonators, all the tribute bands.

#

You know, that’s enough already. I set out to write about Bob Parker’s style and got into a riff on the sequels.

#

I alluded to this a few paragraphs back, but it can stand elaboration: Nobody ever wrote a better fight scene than Robert B. Parker. Whether the violence is hand-to-hand or includes weapons, whether it’s one-on-one or there’s a whole crowd on hand, whether it happened the day before yesterday or back in the Old West, the man always got it down brilliantly. He did so with great economy, and spared us the gore and the sadism, but you were right there while it went down, and you could see just what happened and how it happened, and, well, it was breathtaking. I’d read through one of his scenes a couple of times before going on, not because I was going to school (although I probably was) but because I didn’t want to let go of the experience.

#

There’s another observation Parker made about his work that has stayed with me ever since I first came upon it. He pointed out that he was not writing realism, that he was in fact writing romance.

Let me capitalize that. He was writing Romance. Not, God help us, in the Harlequin/Solitaire sense, but in the Malory *Morte d’Arthur sense. And that’s why it’s perfectly acceptable that Spenser remain the same age forever, that his shining armor remain untarnished, and that, in his affair with Susan, forever wilt he love and she be fair.

It was Parker’s special province to write Romance in a realistic style. And that works quite wonderfully, because it tricks us into suspending disbelief to a remarkable extent. We don’t strain at gnats, but neither do we balk at swallowing the occasional camel.

Consider the sequence in Early Autumn, when Spenser takes Paul Giacomin off to make a man out of him. The physical routine he puts the kid through would flat-out kill him, and Spenser doesn’t even give him days off to recover. Parker would have to know as much; he was a weightlifter hinself, if perhaps a less diligent one than his hero.

But he writes it this way anyway, because this is Romance, and he makes it work. A realist would teach the kid a couple of basic exercises and start him off with two or three lights sets a day of each, and progress would be a gradual thing. That might make just as good reading, but it would be a different sort of book from the one Parker wanted to write.

And one thing he knew was that everything worked out for the best if he wrote the book he wanted to write.

#

I had my troubles with Early Autumn. I’d spent enough time lifting heavy metal objects, and enough days afterward with sore muscles, to find the departure from plausibility hard to take. I’ve had my problems with Spenser and Stone and Virgil Cole, all of whom may be described as true-blue, uxorious, or pussy-whipped, as you prefer. (The three terms are hardly mutually exclusive.)

So? I was never the Ideal Reader for Parker’s work, and God knows he got along fine without me. But I did read almost all of the books, and not because of the stories he chose to tell or the characters who peopled them.

I just kind of liked the way they sounded.

#

And I liked and respected the man. Let’s not leave that out.

I don’t think our paths crossed more than six or eight times, and we never came close to sitting down for a heart-to-heart. There were a couple of dinners where we were both on the dais, a couple of book biz events that threw us together.

Once, I think at a Left Coast Crime conference in Scottsdale, Bob was doing a one-man act in a large room that was predictably packed. He said he wasn’t comfortable preparing talks, but would do a Q&A—and, not surprisingly, turned out to be very good at it.

Somebody asked him which of his own books was his favorite. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Once they’re done I never look at them.” I was all the way in the rear, but I guess he’d spotted me. “How about you, Larry?” he called out. “Do you ever read your own work?”

“I read nothing else,” I said.

Lord, that was satisfying. You have to love a guy who floats one belt-high across the plate like that, and does so on the one day in twenty when you’re quick enough to get your bat on it.

#

I was a bad choice to write this piece, and would have passed if I felt I could. But, if my feelings for the work are mixed, those for the man are not. I was in fact honored to be invited to this particular clambake, and simply could not say no.

Once again, here’s a link to the festschrift, In Pursuit of Spenser. I’m not being overly modest when I report that you’ll probably find the other contributions superior to mine.