Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker 1932-2010

Cliff called me last night to tell me that author Robert B. Parker had died on Monday. After I put down the phone, I sat down on the couch and kind of stared at the wall for a bit. It was very much as if a distant relative had passed away. I haven't felt that way about the death of someone I didn't really know since my comic book artist hero Jack Kirby passed away several years ago.
If you're not familiar with Parker, he was the author of about 50 books and the creator of the private eye hero, Spenser. Even if you haven't read the books you may remember the Spencer for Hire television series with Robert Urich. Spenser first appeared in 1974's The Godwulf Manuscript. I discovered him about six years later and have read every Spenser book up until last year's The Professional, which I have yet to pick up. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you may recall that I thought the quality of the Spenser books had slipped over the last few and had decided to stop buying them in hardback with 2008's Rough Weather. I picked that one up in paperback and had planned to do the same with The Professional, but now I may go ahead and get The professional in hardback just to read it in honor of Parker. It doesn't matter what I thought of the later books because the first fifteen or so in the series remain some of my favorite books of all time.
The funny thing is, I don't think Parker's talent had really gone down hill. I think he had just been writing about one character for too long, a danger for the author of any bestselling series. The public wants more, and the books bring in a LOT of money, even if you don't particularly feel like writing them. When Parker wrote about some new characters in his Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall books, I saw flashes of the old Parker. And his three westerns in the Appaloosa series were amazing. The man could still write, right up until the end. Not that there weren't usually bits of brilliant dialog, even in the worst Spenser books. Parker excelled at dialog and the conversations between various characters in the Spenser books were often the best parts.
On a more personal level, I learned a lot from Robert B. Parker. I came across Spenser when I was just out of high school and I found that Parker was writing about things that interested me deeply. Amidst all the shootouts, car chases, and fist fights, Parker was concerned with friendship, personal honor, and with trying to hold to an ethical code in a world grown increasingly amoral. I picked up some of the way I still look at life from the writings of Robert B. Parker. I do live by a code and Parker helped me define it.
Parker influenced me as a writer as well. People have said that I write good dialog and I think I learned a lot about that from Parker, especially how to use dialog to advance a plot and to reveal character. I also learned a lot about transitioning from scene to scene and how to create a sense of pace. Parker's books move very very quickly. He definitely goes into my top five writing influences.
Parker was 77 years old. According to his obit in the New York Times he was thought to be in very good health and died of an unexpected heart attack while sitting at his desk. For a writer that's the equivalent of dying with your boots on. As a fan of Westerns, I think Parker would appreciate that.
So this weekend I will probably pick up and read The Professional, the last complete Spenser novel. One of the articles about Parker's death said there was another incomplete Spenser in the works. They'll probably find someone to finish it, but I doubt I'll read it. I joined Spenser pretty close to the beginning of his career and I think I'll exit with his creator's last completed words about him.

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