Tuesday, January 19, 2010

RIP Robert B. Parker

I was saddened to learn of the sudden death of Robert B. Parker, author of "The Godwulf Manuscript" and 37 other mysteries featuring the Boston PI known only as Spenser. For a long while, Parker was one of my very favorite mystery novelists and, even if I haven't pick up a new book by him in nearly a decade, I still have a lot of respect for him and his prodigious output.

I started reading Parker in my late teens, probably around the time of "The Judas Goat." Part of his appeal for me lay in the fact that he was a "local boy," that he wrote about Boston, a city only an hour away from my hometown. But there was plenty else to appreciate about those early books -- their wit, the pared-down prose, the way Parker worked in, and reacted against, the traditions laid down by Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Like two other literary New Englanders hitting their stride at that time, Stephen King and Gregory Mcdonald of "Fletch" fame, he was demonstrating that old forms of pop lit could be given fresh, interesting spins.

The first dozen Spensers are the best, and a few -- "Mortal Stakes," "Looking for Rachel Wallace," "Early Autumn" -- rank with the best crime novels of the 70s and 80s. "A Catskill Eagle" in1985 seemed to me to be a turning point, the book where the conversational byplay started to turn into shtick, where Hawk and Susan and the supporting cast grew more predictable, where Parker seemed to give in to the temptation to set his word processor on Cruise Control and just let the new installments roll out.

I continued to read new Spenser books as they became available, and some of them were enjoyable. I have vivid memories of parts of "God Save the Child," "Ceremony" and other early entries, but I don't think, however, that I can recall any individual scene from any novel post-"Taming a Seahorse." After "Potshot," I gave up. I could deal with the increasingly insufferable Susan Silverman, put up with the recycled plots, but it was Spenser's damn dog Pearl that finally did me in. The magic was gone, but I didn't particularly mind.

But I'm sorry he's left us. The reports indicate that he died at his desk, and that's as fitting a conclusion to such a durable and distinguished career as I can imagine.

Lots of others are weighing in with tributes. Check "Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind" for a thorough round-up.

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