Thursday, August 18, 2022

Is Robert B. Parker Overrated?

 I recently re-read Robert B. Parker’s Double Deuce after having been away from his work for quite a while. I followed up with the first of Ace Atkins’s Spenser books, Lullaby. This brought me to two conclusions:

1.   Atkins taking over the franchise was an improvement over the later Parker books

2.   Parker wasn’t as good as he’s often made out to be


Blasphemy, I know. I have my reasons.


The early Spenser books, up through about Looking for Rachel Wallace, are excellent. They’re tight, they’re reminiscent of Chandler in a good way, and the suspense holds through to the end. Especially in Rachel Wallace, there’s a true sense of danger and suspense.


After A Catskill Eagle, not so much.


Spenser and Hawk become almost cartoonish superheroes, wisecracking their way through violent encounters that I can’t take seriously because they don’t appear to. This is particularly grating when the situation calls for treating the antagonist with some seriousness, such as in a negotiation where they need or want something. I’m all for graveyard humor, but Spenser and Hawk just bullshit. It’s generally high-quality bullshit, but that’s all it is.


Let’s look at Double Deuce, since that’s fresh in my mind. Using David Mamet’s screenwriting technique of reading the book, putting it in a drawer, then going with one’s memory, here’s what Double Deuce is about:

·       Spenser is hired as security for a housing project

·       Spenser and Hawk sit around in cars bullshitting, waiting for something to happen

·       Spenser and Hawk prevail


Spenser and Hawk morph into such badasses that there’s no sense of danger directed toward them. It’s as if Spenser was Superman and there was no kryptonite.


There are other issues.


Among the better aspects of Lullaby is the refreshing lack of screen time for Susan Silverman and Pearl the Wonder Dog. I’m not a shrink, and I don’t know what either Frasier or Niles Crane would say about Spenser and Susan (or of Parker and his wife Joan, for that matter) but this is not a healthy relationship, and it gets tedious. Parker too often stops a story to show cloying interludes where Spenser and Susan flirt eruditely to show off their intellect and taste (to each other?) and Spenser makes something to eat.


Spenser can cook, as Parker reminds the reader often and in intimate detail. The books became less about stories as the series went on and more about the filler of Susan and cooking and bullshitting that didn’t really move things along.


“It’s a PI novel. Even you have to admit they’re character studies of the detective.” Good point. Read enough Spenser novels and you’ll find the cooking and the attention to attire and the woke male elements are all there is. There is little or no nuance to the character. He never changes.


Add to that something that appears obvious to me, though I know there are those who will argue: by the end, Parker was mailing them in. I once took a 300-page book out of the library, started reading it after I got home from a writers group meeting, and finished by bedtime. I am not a speed reader. There was more white space than book, and not just because Parker wrote a lot of dialog. The margins and space between the lines were enormous.


For a man who wore his wokeness so much on his sleeve well before woke was a thing, he also had a lot of archaic tendencies. Appaloosa, the first Virgil Cole / Everett Hitch book, is an excellent story well told. (This series also tapers off book by book.) The relationship between Cole and Allie is much the same co-dependent bullshit as with Spenser and Susan.


The Sonny Randle novels, written ostensibly to show a strong woman, not only portray Sonny as Spenser with internal plumbing, she might as well be an alcoholic. Not because of her drinking, but because the books are inevitably about how much Sonny doesn’t want to call on her ex-husband and his mob connections to save her, while we know all along that’s exactly what she’s going to do.


Robert B. Parker made a ton of money from his novels, and deservedly so. He gave a lot of people, including me, much entertainment over the years. I’m happy when any writer gets paid, so I’m glad to see the series have continued on with other authors, though I wonder if maybe at some point the Parker heirs might want to find real jobs. Popularity doesn’t make one great. We can all name writers who have sold even more books than Parker who, frankly, don’t write all that well. (Not that I’m going to name any here. Sour grapes and all.) Parker struck a chord that resonated with a lot of people, but, in the end, his body of work is not impressive enough to mention him with the greats such as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Crais, or Lehane.

1 comment:

Les Edgerton said...

Years ago, while having drinks with Steve Duncan with whom I'd taught with on the UCLA Writer's Program, and co-written a screenplay adapted from one of my novels, he told me some interesting stuff about Parker. Steve was the showrunner on A Man Named Hawk (Parker's character) and he'd also written the film The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson). We were sitting in a bar in Santa Monica, and Steve laughed and said Parker was one of the biggest racists he'd ever known. (Steve's black). He said when the studio hosted parties they always insisted he bring his wife. He said the reason was, when Parker got a few drinks in him, he'd start telling off-color black jokes, thinking he was being cool (and he wasn't) and his wife would come over and take him to the side and ask him not to. I asked Steve why he'd work with guy like that, and he laughed, and said, "Because he writes great black guys." It's always about the money...