Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Mysteries Lose a Big Heart

Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series (and a few others), died yesterday.  His main character was clearly what Parker hoped that he himself would be: smart, passionate, loyal, romantic, loving, and irrepressible.  The TV series with Robert Urich did not do a bad job of capturing the books.
I found Parker in college thanks to a loan from a friend.  I then gobbled up his previous books and then would have to wait each year for the new Spenser novel.  Over time, Parker decided that one book a year was too limiting, so he came up with two other series:
  • Jesse Stone, police chief in small town and an alcoholic on his last chance.  Tom Selleck plays Stone in a series of TV movies.
  • Sunny Randall, a female Spenser with a complicated romantic life.  Originally designed to produce material for Helen Hunt (for movies or TV, I forget).
  • a young adult series covering Spenser's early life.  The good news for me is that I have not read those books yet, so at least there will be a few new Parker novels for me.
He also wrote westerns, including Appaloosa, which was recently made into a movie with Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen, a novel about a private eye protecting Jackie Robinson (Double Play), and he even dared to finish an incomplete Raymond Chandler novel: Poodle Springs.

Why do I love Parker's books so much?
  1. The basic idea of a private eye who was too much of a smartass to stay in the police force certainly worked for me.  Also, each book usually started with one case becoming something else entirely.  And firing Spenser never seemed to work.  But that is just the criminal side.  
  2. I learned a bit of how to cook from these novels despite the fact that they are not culinary mysteries a la Diane Mott Davidson.  Spenser had an interesting relationship with a rival who then became, for want of a better term, his sidekick--Hawk.  Over the years, the novels accumulated a bunch of distinct recurring characters who each added heft to the stories. 
  3. Spenser appreciated women, like all good Gumshoes.  He ultimately became a one-woman man, but his books continued to notice the other women in the best tradition. 
  4. Parker's dialogue, no matter the context, crackled.  Each book was and is so much fun to read.  If you have not had the pleasure, do so.
  5. Parker, via Spenser, not only had a strong sense of himself, but how people should be.  What a man should be.  These books were, cheesy as they sometimes could be, pretty important to me as I was growing up. 
 It is perhaps ironic but ultimately quite perfect that the last Spenser he wrote (at least the last one published while he was alive--who knows how many manuscripts he had on his desk--where he died) was entitled The Professional.  Indeed.

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