by Joe Shea
October 13, 2010
CHILEAN RESCUE EFFORT WEAVES A RAGGED THREAD OF HOPE INTO A FLAG OF TRIUMPH
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Sherlock Holmes disliked women. Sam Spade trusted only his secretary. Mike Hammer wasn't afraid to kill them. Philip Marlowe? He didn't like anybody.
Which brings me to Robert B. Parker, who introduced the concepts of domesticity, fidelity and adult passion to crime fiction and revived that moribund but lovely genre in the early 1970s.
Parker's latest Spenser book, the 39th, called "Painted Ladies," came out this week. (The 40th, "Sixkill," is scheduled to arrive in 2011.) All told, Parker wrote over 60 books and died with his boots on, so to speak, in January of this year, sitting at his desk and writing when his heart failed him at the age of 77.
It was 1971 and women's lib was just getting off the ground when Parker, then a Ph.D. in English Literature teaching at Northeastern, started writing the Boston-based Spenser series. Later, he also wrote the Jesse Stone series, plus a series with a female detective, Sunny Randall, some Westerns and a few other novels.
At his peak, which lasted for decades, he was producing two or three books a year. He's a formidable writer with a formidable resume.
And Parker practically saved my life recently when I was forced by family matters to be in Florida for over a month, far away from my home and husband. Spenser became an imaginary - but substantial - substitute for what I was missing most.
Of course my husband isn't armed and dangerous, but he's big and protective and shares with Spenser one of the most endearing traits of all - he's unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve.
Very few writers are their own heroes, and Parker was certainly not Spenser. But he pulled the most interesting parts from his own life and wove them into his books. He was a big man who loved his home, the culinary arts and his German shorthaired pointers - all named, in succession, Pearl, which "was a way to manage mortality a little."
But most of all, Spenser loved his long-time girlfriend, Susan Silverman, a beautiful, sexy and independent-minded Harvard-educated psychologist. Parker modeled her on his wife, Joan, and was doggedly and forever proud of her.
"I sometimes wondered how we could possibly be together," Spenser muses in "Now & Then." "The only thing we liked in common was us. Fortunately we liked us a lot."
I discovered Parker the way I discover all my detective series - randomly. I've read my way through the classics. (And yes, that includes Agatha Christie, who doesn't hold up today.) I've been all through Dick Francis, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky on the way to - forgive me - Janet Evanovich. I've even read all of M.C. Beaton's Hamish MacBeth books, and that's saying something about my addiction.
For this trip, however, I knew I needed airplane as well as bedtime decompression reading. So before I left, I stopped into Brattleboro Books and bought three used Spenser novels.
When I finished those, I was hooked. Then I found out that there are no used book stores in South Florida. So I went to a huge, absolutely empty-of-customers Barnes & Noble and bought two new ones. And later, two more.
Parker writes with wit and brevity. His plots are gripping. He never seems to repeat himself. He creates characters who jump off the page - in "Thin Air," the villain is a crazed Hispanic gang leader who kidnaps a woman and makes her dress up as characters from films.
Parker is wise in odd ways. In "Thin Air" he talks about poverty and depravity: "Slums were immutable. The ethnicities changed, but the squalor and sadness and desperation remained as constant as the movement of the stars. Finally it was probably less the poverty that bred crime than the sour stench of racism that hung over anyplace where people are separated out by kind."
But for me, the books were mostly about home - at least Boston and Western Massachusetts - and the central relationship of a middle-aged couple who liked, respected and were openly sexual with each other and still managed to live productive individual lives.
That was especially important in Florida, where so many people commented about my husband "letting me" be away so long.
In The New York Times obituary of Parker, best-selling writer Harlan Coben says, "When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."
Maybe you're way ahead of me in knowing Parker's work. Maybe you're like the guy in the Orlando airport who came over to talk to me because he'd read them all and wanted to see which one I had. Or maybe you're always looking for a lot of something great to read. All I know is that finding Parker saved me in South Florida, and I'll be forever grateful.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist and columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.