The late Robert B. Parker is enjoying a literary life after death.
“Fashion goes out of style, yet style never goes out of fashion,” says the stylish essayist and short story writer Joseph Epstein of the late stylish singer and dancer Fred Estaire. The quote is from Epstein’s very readable Fred Astaire of 2008.
This truism holds for writing as well as hoofing, which everyone agrees Astaire brought off with more style than anyone. In fact, style may be the most durable quality in writing, especially in the currently popular genre of crime fiction.
If style is the man, the man is the late Robert B. Parker, whose next to last Spenser novel, Painted Ladies, is on book store shelves now and available, along with a considerable Parker back list, for last minute stocking stuffing.
Parker’s fast-moving crime stories are written in spare but insistent prose, short on description but with much crisp, often amusing dialogue. The stories never lag and the plot is supplemented by Parker’s acute observations on the social scene, friendship, loyalty, integrity, responsibility, courage, the place of work and love in our lives, and what it means to be a man or woman in our current post-everything jumble.
That’s quite a bit for genre fiction to carry. But Parker delivers much of what readers used to look for elsewhere before literary fiction fell on hard times. What on earth is Ian McEwan nattering on about?
“Ladies” — they aren’t what you’re doubtless thinking they are — gets underway when a professor and art expert asks Spenser to act as bodyguard during an exchange of money for a kidnapped painting. The painting-nappers insist Spenser stay in the car during the swap, which sees the painting and the professor blown up by a bomb. There was little Spenser could have done to prevent this, but this is a violation of his code he isn’t about to let stand.
The museum that owned the painting, the company that insured it, and the university where Spenser’s late client worked don’t seem interested in the painting or the professor’s sorry end. When a couple of very professional hit guys try to take Spenser permanently off the case, he doubles down his efforts.
As Spenser unravels the mystery through a tight, well-constructed plot, readers learn a bit about art theft and forgery, all connected to some holocaust survivors and some bad actors who are not what they seem to be until Spenser unmasks them.
Ladies is the next to the last Parker novel featuring Spenser, the tough but literate Boston PI (no first name is ever given — though in a tease in Ladies it is for the first time revealed that Spenser has a first name). This well-wrought Spenser story and Sixkill, which Putnam’s will bring out in May, are proof of literary life after death.
Parker went on to his reward in January after a heart attack at his office writing desk. If delighting tens of millions of readers for decades counts for much in the Final Calculus, that reward should be considerable. Parker was a fast writer and prolific. Though he was 42 and a full professor of English at Northeastern University when his first novel was published, he brought out more than 50 crime novels and a handful of westerns by the time he died at 77. At his death he left behind four completed manuscripts, including the final Jesse Stone novel (yes, the series of made-for-TV movies with Tom Selleck as Stone), a western, and two Spensers.
But not to worry, Parker may have earned a PhD in English but he never wrote like a professor (see above re style). I challenge those laboring under the impression that English PhDs can write to pick up any edition of the Publication of the Modern Language Association (the English professor’s trade publication) and try to read any article. But DO NOT do this on any day when you have to drive or operate heavy equipment.
By the time Parker and Spenser appeared on the mystery scene in 1973 in The Godwulf Manuscript, many thought the private eye genre was exhausted. It was indeed getting a bit seedy and down at heels. The high practitioners of the art — Raymond Chandler, Dashiel Hammett, and Ross MacDonald were dead or no longer writing and Mickey Spillane was pretty crude stuff.
Even the work of the Big Three was pretty dark, noir stuff, artfully done but demanding a high tolerance for cynicism and world-weariness. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Hammett’s Sam Spade, and MacDonald’s Lew Archer were isolated loners with not much in the way of lives outside of their jobs. Unhappy men who could be real downers.
Spenser, au the contraire, has a love life, friends, and a realistic outlook on this complex, marvelous, but sometimes menacing world, and great humor. Spenser’s wise-cracks are funny, and unlike the mordant ones of Marlowe don’t make readers, after they’ve laughed, feel like they want to take a shower. Spenser can spend times down the mean streets without forgetting how to have a good time. Parker and his knight errant brought the private eye novel back to life and put a happier face on it. His reward was tens of millions of book sales over four decades and legions of satisfied readers.
The last time I wrote about Parker for TAS some correspondents complained that Parker was too liberal to be whooped up in a conservative publication. A movement conservative prosecutor could probably come up with some charges and specifications: Parker’s keenness on the benefits of psychotherapy, the fact that some of the villains in his stories are clearly right extremists, and his going perhaps further out of the way than necessary to demonstrate that he isn’t anti-gay. But it’s too facile to conclude from these things that this complex writer is just another lefty.
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