Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Robert B. Parker

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a few brief notes about the Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker.

Parker is one of those novelists of whom anybody who's interested in detective fiction is always aware, even if his actual writing might be unknown. He passed away two years ago, leaving behind an astonishing stack of books. With a little focus, anybody can finish Raymond Chandler in three weeks or so. Wikipedia lists sixty-eight novels by Parker, one of which is his completion of Chandler's unfinished Poodle Springs, and which I've been putting off reading for many years. Now that I see just how entertaining Parker's work is, I'm going to tackle that sometime soon.

On a whim, I checked 2003's Back Story out of the library. This is the thirtieth(!) of forty(!) novels featuring a PI in Boston called Spenser. By this point, Spenser's world and cast of supporting characters is very much established - the dude was averaging one Spenser novel about every ten months, so he had plenty of time to build up quite a world for him - and it crosses over into another series of books featuring a small-town police chief called Jesse Stone, who, in turn, crosses over into another series of books starring a PI named Sunny Randall. With Parker's characters adapted for television, it's easy to visualize the parts as played by Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Tom Selleck and Helen Hunt, even if all that I really know of Boston, where all these stories are set, is a single day's whirlwind visit and all of those establishing shots of the city on Banacek.

Having finished Back Story, and reflecting that I might have enjoyed it a little better had Spenser not performed like a superhuman killing machine in an exciting sequence set at night in Harvard's stadium, I went back to the beginning and have read the first three novels. 1973's Godwulf Manuscript has the dry humor down from the start, and some obvious Parker tropes like incredibly detailed accounts of what Spenser cooks for himself and an unflinching use of corporate trademarks. It's distasteful and dated beyond belief in some regards - Spenser beds a mother and her daughter in the same day, and I can't imagine anybody reading that today without a furrowed brow - but the investigation is interesting and I enjoyed how Parker basically telegraphed to all his readers that he's going to remain obsessed with university campuses for the next thirty-something years.

1974's God Save the Child has a hysterical moment early on where Spenser, leaving town and driving north through suburban sprawl, engages in an incredibly long run-on sentence where he describes every awful thing that he passes on the state highway, and it introduces one of his regular supporting players and lovers, Susan, but is otherwise a skippable story of bodybuilders and missing kids, with that very ugly 1970s distaste for homosexuality leaking from every page. 1975's Mortal Stakes is a much better read, with an ugly secret threatening the career and the marriage of a star Red Sox pitcher, thanks to a far-too powerful radio personality knowing more about the team's scandals than he should.

I've enjoyed three of the four books a great deal, and am about to start on the celebrated Promised Land, which won the Edgar Award for best mystery novel of 1975 and later served as the pilot for the ABC Spenser: For Hire TV series. Even if I only keep enjoying three of each four books, then I figure I have fifty-one good reads in front of me.

1 comment:

Tam said...

If you think Parker wrote a lot of books, check out the even more prolific Ed McBain, who also wrote great detective novels. Unfortunately people get the wrong idea about McBain on account of The Simpsons, but he wrote very entertaining novels which have been a huge influence on stuff like Hill Street Blues, Homicide and Alan Moore's Top 10. Pretty much all the novels are worth a read, but taken as a whole they give an incredible account of how urban crime and big city life has changed over the past half century.