Wednesday 30 November 2011

Robert B. Parker

There were two Robert B.Parkers. One was a hard-bitten war reporter and member of the OSS, the other a professor of English Literature at Boston University. The former produced a few noir thrillers, the latter produced an extensive body of work across several genres and it is the prof I'll talk about today.

Robert Parker was born in 1932 in Springfield,_Massachusetts. Apart from his first degree (Maine) and a spell in the army, serving in Korea, he spent most of his life in the state. His PhD does give a clue to how his life was to develop: his dissertation was titled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality," and discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.

Parker's best known character is Spenser: hard-bitten working-class private eye with the soft heart. The Spenser novels contain a huge range of characters, recurring and one-offs. There's Hawk, the archetype of cool black non-stereotypes. There's Susan, Spenser's life long (with interruptions) partner, there's a vast range of nationalities, religions and sexual preferences (though very little sex). It is believed that Parker's sons' homosexuality tempered his writing to a degree - whatever the reason he shows a sympathy, straightforward and lacking in cloying sentimentality, that others would do well to mark.

Some of Spenser's personality is based on aspects of Edward Spenser's poetry, though that is irrelevant to enjoyment of the books. He has his code of morality: he will bend in a good cause but face huge odds on a matter of principle. Hawk is his darker side - there's oblique reference to various less noble activites and Hawk is readier to shoot - but he'll always back Spencer on moneyless crusades.

So, what is the writing like? Flowery and full of smug literary references? Nope, not at all. Parker's writing is surprisingly pared down, his dialogue crisp and often humourous - and far better than the white cop/black cop pairings that Hollywood has managed. The action flows at a good pace, the plotting is good and tight. You won't hit peaks of fear or depths of violent depravity - but you will get a very good read for the intelligent crime lover.

Apart from Spenser and a couple of one-offs, Parker also wrote a smaller series about Jesse Stone, alcoholic policeman with a troubled personal life, and a series about a female private eye named Sunny Randall (supposedly at the request of Helen Hunt). The Jesse Stone novels are well worth reading, the Sunny Randalls should be avoided like the plague: full of logical inconsistencies, clich├ęs and appalling dialogue.

In what order should I read them?

The Spenser books can be read in any order. The Jesse Stones are best read in order of publication - back references are more extensive in this series and more integral to the plot.


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