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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Remembering Robert Parker

It's been almost a year since Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective series novels, died at the age of 77. Since 1973 Robert Parker has published 38 Spenser novels (and there are additional completed ones awaiting release), and particularly through the early books single-handedly saved the hardboiled detective legacy of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald.
It is not going too far to say that nearly every author writing detective fiction today owes a debt of gratitude to Robert Parker. Writers from Dennis Lehane to Robert Crais have acknowledged this fact in interviews, and for you Janet Evanovich fans, just understand that Spenser's Hawk paved the way for Stephanie Plum's Ranger.
It is no secret that Robert Parker idolized Raymond Chandler, and in what had to be one of the greatest experiences of his life was asked to finish the manuscript for "Poodle Springs," a novel begun by Raymond Chandler before his death in 1959. He later wrote "Perchance to Dream," the sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep." His work on both of these novels is only fitting, as Parker long ago joined the ranks of the Big Three of Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald.
I first started reading the Spenser novels over 25 years ago, and since that time the trio of Spenser, Hawk, and Susan Silverman have been my companions through long winter nights and lazy summer days. Through them I discovered the city of Boston, not necessarily as it is but as Spenser (and Parker) saw it, which is likely better by far. And I identified with Spenser's unique combination of romantic cynicism.
Various critics have said that some of the books, particularly in the mid-1980s, were not up to the standard set by the earlier novels, but that misses the point entirely. While some of the plots were better than others, what readers cared about was the characters; over the course of the series we got to really know and care about them, and each new book was like a reunion with an old friend. The fact that there will be no new reunions after the final books he wrote are released is still hard to fathom.
I never met Mr. Parker, but I feel I got to know him somewhat in the only way one can ever really know an author: through his characters, particularly the inimitable Spenser. He said in an interview once that there were a number of similarities he shared with his famous character: they were both Korean War veterans, and both loved baseball, jazz, and fine food.
"He does a great many things I don't believe," Parker once said in an Associated Press interview. "I don't know if he's more violent than I am. But he's more willing to enact it than I am. Let's just say we're not dissimilar."
So to Robert Parker I say thank you, for everything. While he may be gone, readers and fans can be comforted by the fact that Spenser lives on, just like Hammett's Sam Spade and Chandler's Philip Marlowe. And through him a part of Robert Parker will live on, both for those of us who grew up reading his words and for generations not yet born. I can't think of a much better legacy than that.

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