The Best of Robert B. Parker

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I turned 47 in February, so it was high time for a mid-life crisis. Rather than searching for an inappropriately young girlfriend or impulse buying a European sports car, I read all the books by Robert B. Parker starring Spenser, the tough but fair Boston private eye who saves lost souls and kills bad guys with the help with his girlfriend, refined therapist Susan Silverman, and his partner, the fashionable and street-wise Hawk.

In 1971, Robert B. Parker successfully defended his doctoral dissertation at Boston University, “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.”

In 1973, The Godwulf Manuscript was published by Houghton Mifflin. Naturally, the first Spenser novel leans heavily on the topics of Parker’s dissertation, especially Raymond Chandler, whose irreverent humor and surreal plots are an obvious starting point for Parker. (Chandler’s detective was Marlowe, Parker’s was Spenser. Both Marlowe and Spenser were Elizabethan poets.)  Ross MacDonald’s solemn compassion for the younger generation was also part of Parker’s conception. There is less of a Hammett influence, which is common: for all that he essentially invented the hardboiled style, Hammett’s idiosyncratic and unethical moral structure has proven to harder to appropriate than the securely heroic voices of Chandler and MacDonald, at least for those committed to a basic murder mystery. (Of other bestselling mystery authors in recent memory, James Ellroy seems to have learned the most from Hammett’s moral uncertainty.)

The Godwulf Manuscript was a hit, and Parker would go on to write 38 more Spenser books credited with helping revive and define the genre. Later on in his career, Parker created  P.I. Sunny Randall and Sheriff Jesse Stone, offered two (perhaps ill-advised) completions of unfinished Chandler/Marlowe manuscripts, and retold the story of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral in Gunman’s Rhapsody. After Parker’s death, both the Spenser and Stone series have continued with new authors.

While the 80’s TV adaptation Spenser for Hire with Robert Urich and Avery Brooks looked and sounded somewhat like the books, the recent Netflix movie Spenser Confidential with Mark Wahlberg and Winston Duke bears little resemblance to the source material.

The novels of Agatha Christie and Rex Stout are still around, dated as they may be, while someone like Erle Stanley Gardner would be almost entirely forgotten if it were not for the television productions starring Perry Mason. From my vantage point it seems like the posthumous reputation of Donald E. Westlake keeps holding some ground, while the work of his peer Ed McBain is receding into history.

Will Robert B. Parker stand the test of time? Having just read the 39 Spenser novels, my answer is a qualified “no.” They are too formulaic, too predictable, and the moral certitude threatens to become preachy. What’s worse, a major part of each novel are investigations into sexual and racial politics, usually in the form of dialogues with Susan or Hawk (who is black). What was edgy or advanced in the 1970s or 1980s is trite or even embarrassing today, and presumably that condition will only worsen as society keeps evolving. (Parker’s work may end up being a good example of why not to be politically correct in genre fiction, simply for reasons of shelf-life.)

If the books do stay in circulation, it is going to be for witty dialogue between opponents, the rise and fall of tension in a fight scene, the technical details of how to take on armed posse when the opponents already know to expect trouble. Nobody could write a tough guy action sequence like Robert B. Parker. You want to call it toxic masculinity? Fine. During a mid-life crisis, you might need some goddamn toxic masculinity, and as soon as I put down one Spenser, I was eager to pick up another.

An early success is The Judas Goat (1978).  It’s a simple bounty hunter plot, with many excellent battles, one after another. However, the stake out scenes are almost as important: At one point Spenser waits for hours outside his hotel room in London, wondering if an assassin is inside. The waiting itself is a funny and dramatic sequence, and it is a relief when the guns finally start firing.

If I had to chose one Spenser title as the best, I might go for Playmates (1989). While I don’t know the first thing about basketball, the scenes discussing college hoops were as compelling as anything about guns or fists. In Playmates the topic of race is brought directly to the forefront, but it is also handled with a defter touch than usual. Hawk’s macho presence is dialed down a bit, while the issue of a college administration trampling on the education of black students in a rush to win a pennant is a worthy (and still relevant) topic.

Parker occasionally enacts joyful revenge against the culture of high education, a culture he left behind after becoming a successful novelist. Playmates includes the telling lines, “Like a lot of academics I had met, she was so used to manipulating meaning with language that both became relative. As if you could make falsehood true by richly said restatement.”

Otto Penzler’s posthumous celebration In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero is valuable.  Two of the best essays are Lawrence Block’s even-handed appreciation “They Like the Way It Sounds”  and Ed Gorman’s exploration of genre tropes, “Parker Saddles Up: The Westerns of Robert B. Parker.”

Indeed, as the series progresses, the Spenser stories seem to owe less and less to the P.I. tradition and more and more to the classic Western. This just fine, for the Western is a perfect format for a tough guy action series with an unwavering moral center. “There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Spenser.”

Potshot (2001) literally puts Spenser in charge of cleaning up a Western town, with a climatic shootout that pits seven against forty, just like an old John Ford movie.

I first read Taming A Sea-Horse (1986) as a teenager, more or less when the book was new. I’ve never forgotten a certain chapter. I couldn’t remember the book’s title or anything else about the story, but a certain chapter has stayed in my mind. During my recent reading, I was wondering when that chapter would turn up. When it did, I wasn’t the least bit let down; rather I was freshly impressed by the skill of the author.

To set it up: Spenser is trying to help an occasional recurring character, April Kyle. (To Parker’s credit, the narrative arcs of both April Kyle and Rugar, the Gray Man — two occasionally recurring characters that initially scan as stock personalities borrowed from other places in genre fiction — have truly unexpected finales.) During the process, Spenser befriends hooker Ginger Buckey and learns of her a terrible father, the toughest man in Lindell, Maine. Spenser reports into his client:

“And you have noted her father’s name?”

“Vern Buckey,” I said.

“And where he lives.”

“Lindell, Maine,” I said.

She smiled. “And you won’t forget it.”

“No.”

She smiled more. “You are a piece of work,” she said.

“Un huh.”

“Oh, I know you won’t race up to Maine burning with a passion to right old wrongs. You are in your own idealistic way as cynical as I am. But you’ll store that up and maybe, someday, if you have occasion to go to Maine…”

I shrugged. “One never knows,” I said.

“Perhaps the most charming part of it all is that it’s not just because he was bestial to his child. It’s that. But it’s also because you would want to find out if he really is the toughest man in Lindell, Maine.”

“For a person I see every ten years you seem to know a lot about me,” I said.

Ginger ends up dead and the investigation is stalls out, so Spenser decides to pay Ginger’s father a visit. Chapter 13 is all Western, and all great. I recopied it out, hoping to learn a few literary lessons along the way.

Maine is much bigger than any of the other New England states and large stretches of it are, to put it kindly, rural. Lindell is more rural than most of Maine. If three people left, it would be more rural than the moon. The center of town appeared around a curve in a road that ran through scrub forest. There was a cinder block store with a green translucent plastic portico in front and two gas pumps. Next to it was a gray-shingled bungalow with a white sign out front that said in black letters LINDELL, MAINE, and below it U.S. POST OFFICE. Across the street was a bowling alley with a sign in the window that said Coors in red neon script. Beyond the three buildings the road continued its curve back into the scrub forest. Some years back there had been a timbering industry, but when the forest got depleted, the timber companies moved on while Lindell sat around and waited for the new trees to grow.

I parked in front of the Lindell sign and went into the building. Half of it was post office, one window and a bank of post office boxes along the wall. The other half of the building was the site of town government in Lindell. Town government appeared to be a fat woman in a shapeless dress sitting at a yellow pine table with two file cabinets behind her. I smiled at her. She nodded.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for a man named Vern Buckey.”

The fat woman said, “Why?”

“I need to talk with him about his daughter.”

“Vern don’t like to talk to people,” the woman said.

There was a gap in her upper front teeth about four teeth wide. I smiled at her again. She didn’t swoon. Was I losing it? Of course not. She was just obdurate.

“Sure, ma’am. I don’t blame him. I respect a person’s privacy. But this might be important to Vern.” If the smile didn’t work, the silver tongue would.

“Vern don’t like people talking about him neither,” she said.

“Well, sure,” I said. I was smiling and talking. “Nobody does, but why don’t you just tell me where he is and I’m sure I can explain it to him.”

“Vern don’t like people telling other people where he lives.”

“Lady,” I said, “I don’t actually give a rat’s ass what Vern likes, if you really want to know. I drove seven hours to talk with him and I want to know where he is.”

The woman laughed a wheezy laugh. “A rat’s ass,” she said, and laughed some more. “By God.”

She fumbled around in the litter on the table and found a tired-looking pack of Camels and got one out and lit it with a kitchen match that she scratched on the underside of the table. She inhaled some smoke and blew it out with a kind of snort. 

“Well,” she said, “you’re a pretty good-sized fella.”

“But fun-loving,” I said, “and kind to my mother.”

She smoked some more of her Camel. “Let me tell you something for your own good,” she said. She was squinting through the smoke from the cigarette, which she left in the corner of her mouth while she talked. “If you go bothering Vern Buckey he’ll knock you down and kick you like a dog.”

“Even if I object?”

She laughed again, wheezing, and choked a little on the smoke of her cigarette and laughed and choked and wheezed at the same time. “Object,” she gasped. “You can object like a… like a rat’s ass,” and she laughed and wheezed so hard she couldn’t talk for a minute. She stopped laughing and wheezed a little longer and got her breath back and squinted at me some more. “You are a by-God big one,” she said. “Might be sorta interesting.”

I was gaining ground, so I shut up and smiled and listened. Susan said it was a technique I might consider polishing.

The fat woman pointed with her chin. “Vern’s truck is parked ‘cross the street in front of the bowling alley. He’ll be inside drinking beer.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She inhaled, coughed, and chuckled in her wheezy way. “Rat’s ass,” she said.

I was wearing jeans and running shoes and a gray sleeveless T-shirt and a gray silk tweed summer jacket and a gun. I took off the jacket, and unclipped the gun from my belt and folded the jacket on top of the gun and put them on the front seat of my car. Then I walked across the street and into the bowling alley.

The bowling alley was one of those round-topped corrugated buildings that look like a big Quonset hut or a small airplane hangar. There were only three lanes inside, and a snack bar that sold beer and sandwiches. No one was bowling. A short dark-haired man with a bald spot and tattooed arms was behind the bar. He had on a sleeveless undershirt with a spot of ketchup on it. Sitting on a barstool drinking Budweiser beer from a longnecked bottle was a guy with a round red face and a big hard belly. He was entirely bald and his head seemed to swell out of his thick shoulders without benefit of neck. He had small piggy eyes under scant eyebrows that were blond or white and barely visible and his thick flared short nose looked like a snout. The eyes and nose gave his face a swinish cast. He was wearing a dirty white T-shirt and baggy blue overalls and work boots. He hadn’t shaved recently, but his beard, like his eyebrows, was so pale that it only gave a shabby glint to his red skin. He wasn’t talking to the bartender, and he wasn’t looking at the soap opera on television. He was staring straight ahead and drinking the beer. When I came in he shifted his stare at me and in its meanness it was nearly tangible. The hand wrapped around the beer bottle was thick and hammy with big knuckles. There was no air-conditioning in the place but a big floor fan hummed near the bar, pushing the hot air around the dim room.

I said, “Vern Buckey?”

He unhooked his bootheels from the lower rung of the barstool and let his feet drop to the floor and stood up. He was at least six feet four, which gave him three inches on me, and he must have weighed eighty pounds more than my two hundred. A lot of it was stomach but what he lacked in conditioning he probably made up in meanness.

“What did you say?” He spoke in a hoarse kind of whisper.

“Vern Buckey.”

“I don’t like you saying that,” he rasped.

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “Sounds like an asshole name to me, too, but I want to talk with you about your daughter.”

Buckey put the beer bottle down on the counter and stepped toward me. “Get the fuck out of here,” he said.

“Your daughter’s dead,” I said.

“I told you to get out,” he said, and took another step. “People round here do what I say.”

“I need to know about Ginger, Vern.”

“Then I’m going to rack your ass,” he said.

I shrugged. “Sure. In the parking lot. No point messing up this slick amusement complex.”

I turned and went out the door. In the parking lot cars and pickup trucks and two motorcycles had arrived. People sat in the cars and trucks and on the bikes in a kind of expectant semicircle. The fat woman from the town office was there with a group of other citizens in a cluster, near Buckey’s green Ford truck. I gave her a short thumbs-up gesture. She poked an elbow into the man next to her and pointed at me with her chin. I could hear her wheeze. Buckey came out of the bowling alley squinting with his little pig eyes in the glare of the summer. He looked around at the circle of onlookers and hunched his shoulders as if to get a kink out and came straight at me.

“Talked with a sheriff’s deputy on the phone before I came up,” I said. “Said you were crazy. Said everyone in this part of the state was afraid of you.”

Buckey tried to kick me in the groin and I turned and he missed and grunted and turned toward me again.

“Said even the cops are afraid of you because you’re nuts.”

He kicked at me again and missed again. I was moving around him. He was massive and relentless but he wasn’t very fast. If I didn’t let my mind wander, I could probably avoid him. It was why I’d come out. I didn’t want the fight confined in a small space.

“Said you’d get on someone’s case and maybe they’d be driving along at night and someone would backshoot them with a deer rifle at an intersection.”

Buckey rushed at me and I slipped aside and slapped him across the face. The sound of it made several onlookers gasp.

“They know it’s you but they can’t catch you.”

Buckey hit me a roundhouse right-hand punch on the upper left arm and numbness set in at once. He followed with a left but I rolled away from it.

“I can see why you’re a backshooter, Vern,” I said. “You can’t hit shit with your fists.”

Buckey was a little quicker than he looked and got hold of my shirtfront, and as I tried to yank away he hit me with his right hand again, this time on the side of my head just in front of my left ear. Bells rang. I brought both fists down on his hand where it held my shirt. I didn’t loosen his grip, but the shirt tore and I pulled away.

“Best punch you’ve got, Vern?”

He kept coming. I don’t even know if he heard my chatter. His eyes pinched nearly shut. His face a fiery red, sweat running down his cheeks, a froth of saliva at the corner of his mouth, he kept at me like a Cape buffalo: stupid, implacable, brutish and mad.

Fighting is hard work. Big as he was and mean as he was, Buckey was not in training. Most of his fights were one- or two-punch affairs. Knock the victim down and then kick him awhile. Not taxing, except on the kickee. But Vern was having trouble getting me to stay still and in a while he was going to get tired: It wasn’t going to be a very long while.

I stepped in quick, smacked Buckey on the snout, and moved back away. Blood started down over his lips and chin. He rubbed the back of his left hand over his mouth and looked at the smear of blood and made a sort of growl and rushed at me. I spun aside and kicked him on the side of the left knee and it buckled under him and he went down. Behind me I heard a man say, “Jesus Christ.”

Buckey scrambled to his feet. He limped slightly on the knee I’d kicked and he moved more slowly. The blood from his nose was reddening his T-shirt, mixing with the sweat that had already soaked it. Where he’d fallen some of the parking lot gravel stuck to the moisture. He was breathing hard. He lunged at me again and threw a handful of gravel at my face. It didn’t have much effect. But it distracted me for half a second and Vern hit me on the left side of the jaw and knocked me two staggering steps and down flat on my back. My head echoed with hollow distance and my vision blurred. He jumped through the blur, kicking at my head, and, mostly on instinct, I half rolled and got my hands up and the kick hit my upper arm. I kept rolling and crab-scrambled away from the next kick and got my feet under me and was up. I felt dizzy. Vern hit me again on the upper left arm, and then on the right forearm as I covered up and deflected the punches.

The ringing in my head was clearing. I could hear Vern’s breath rasping in and out. He tried to get his arms around me in a bear hug and when he did I kneed him in the groin and butted him under the chin and broke away. He was gasping and shaking his head, half doubled over in pain. But his eyes were fixed on me with the same red intensity they had when he stepped out of the bowling alley. He was drooling a little and bleeding and soaked with sweat and filthy with dust and gravel. He was breathing like a bellows, oxygen heaving into his chest. But he had stopped coming at me. He stood still, swaying slightly, his head shaking slightly.

“Vern,” I said, “you’re just not in shape.” I shook my head. “Shame to see a man let himself go like this.”

He came at me again, but more slowly. Not cautiously, but in a slower-motion version of the way he had come at me before. There was no change in expression. I made a little feint with my left hand and hooked it over his shoulder and got him on the jaw. I moved away from his punch and hit him a combination, left, left, overhand right. And moved away. Vern turned slowly toward me. His arms were starting to drop. It was what I used to look for when I was fighting. Your opponent got arm-weary and he let them drop and you went for his head. I hit Vern another combination. My head was clear now and the oxygen was flowing in and out easily and the legs were good and the muscles were loose and I could see very clearly. I could see the openings where the punches could go and I was moving in the clean, precise automatic sequences I had learned a long time ago when I thought I was going to be heavyweight champ. Vern was pushing his punches at me now. It was almost done. I knew there were people watching and I knew the sun was out but none of that had any reality, only the swaying massive shape in front of me and the punching lanes and the sequenced movements. It was like dancing to music only I could hear. Even Vern barely mattered in the intensity of my concentration and the rhythms of the fight. There was no pain. Later there would be, but not now. Just the patterns and the movements and the solid jolt as the punches landed.

And then he was through.

He didn’t go down. But his arms dropped; he stopped coming, even slowly, and stood motionless, his arms down, gasping for air. I stepped back away from him. The intensity was gone. The meanness was gone. In his eyes there was nothing. As if all he was was mean and if he lost it he ceased to exist. Around us most of the people north of Bangor stood in a ragged semicircle in absolute silence. I could hear my breathing deep and steady easing in and out, and I could hear Buckey rasping desperately. Somewhere in the scrub forests along the highway some kind of bird was making a persistent sound like chips being sliced from a hardwood slab.

Behind me a man’s voice said, “Put him away, mister.”

And another voice, male also: “Put him down, man… Put the sonova bitch down.”

I said to Buckey, “You ready to talk about Ginger?”

A woman’s voice said, “Knock him down, mister.”

And a man said, “Don’t stop until it’s done.”

A lot of voices chimed in. Vern wasn’t only disliked. He was disliked widely.

A woman said, “Kill the bastard.”

Buckey still stood motionless, still swaying slightly, his head down, gasping. Then he slowly bent forward and his knees buckled and he fell like a weed wilting, crumpling to the ground and lying still with his face in the gravel. Again there was silence and then someone began to clap and then the odd rural crowd began to applaud steadily.

Now I was the toughest guy in Lindell, Maine.

The rest of Taming A Sea-Horse isn’t quite this good, it’s just mostly business as usual from a professional of modern escapism. In general the 39 Spenser books alternate between chapters that are casual and chapters that are masterful.

At some point I began skimming the dinner conversations with Susan Silverman, but I always slowed down for the gunfights.

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The earlier Spenser books are passionate and convoluted, later on they are a settled ritual. For some reason I was under the impression that Parker lost his way at some point, but that’s simply not true. A quick list of ten of my favorites include books from every decade:

The Judas Goat (1978) (discussed above)
Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980) Wallace is a lesbian, feminist author — what could go wrong? From a 2020 perspective this story is hopelessly out of touch, yet it still has a heart of gold. Spencer walks through snow for miles to get to the final showdown.
A Catskill Eagle (1985) As already noted, Spenser’s informal therapy sessions with Susan Silverman become agonizingly repetitive. However Catskill Eagle holds up a magnifying glass to Susan’s own story and the results are compelling.
Taming a Seahorse (1986) (discussed above)
Playmates (1989) (discussed above)
Hush Money (1999) Like Playmates, a delightful skewering of academic hypocrisy.  The reasonably candid discussion of homosexuality can’t be held to the strictest of standards, but at the very least it is not the old-school phobia of Raymond Chandler.
Back Story (2003) A nostalgia trip is a chance for some excellent detection. The client’s eventual relationship to the truth is Robert B. Parker at his best.
Cold Service (2005) Hawk is in charge, Spenser is backup. The two girlfriends discuss the two men at some length. As far as I’m concerned, these analytic dialogues only needed to have been done once in the whole series. The first time you read them, the critique has weight. Perhaps if the analytic dialogues appeared only in Cold Service, as solemn counterpoint to the trouble at hand, this book would have masterpiece status.
Now and Then (2008) A modern terrorist plot that really works, with some amusing digs against aging hippies.

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Three installments from the 1990’s have a deliberately exotic background. Thin Air (set in a Hispanic ghetto), Walking Shadow (Chinese ghetto), and Double Deuce (Black ghetto) are almost by definition problematic. This kind of failure was a constant across all American media of the 20th century: Whenever a resolutely white franchise puts the action in an ethnic setting, it rarely works out well. In a related topic, the lurid insanity of the serial killer in Crimson Joy plays out like any other stereotypical sex murderer created in the wake of Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon.

Parker’s least exotic characters are his best. Lieutenant Martin Quirk. Sergeant Frank Belson. Mob enforcer Vinnie Morris. Whenever they appear, these types of unapologetic white Boston male heavies deliver solid entertainment.

I may not return to Robert B. Parker much more in the future — certainly there is no need to keep investigating him the way I do Hammett, Chandler, and MacDonald — but a quick frisk was a pleasure and certainly suited my mid-life mood.

(The uncredited painting at the top of this post is a detail from the Penguin UK paperback edition of The Godwulf Manuscript.)