RIP, Robert Parker

Robert B Parker, creator of Boston sleuth Spenser, PI Sunny Randall and small-town sheriff Jesse Stone, passed away on 1/18/10.  He was found dead at his desk where he had been writing, which seems like how he would have wanted it.


His other series were fun, and Appaloosa and its sequels interesting, but I grew up with Spenser.


I started reading the Spenser novels in the late 1970’s.  Spenser was a hunky, clear-eyed rebel, a manly man without a lot to prove, and a streak of purposeful silliness.  In one book, he tries to get confidential information from a welfare worker.  The female worker correctly refuses.  He asks her if she’ll get it for him if he does a one-armed push-up.  She hesitates, so he drops to the floor and does a one-armed push-up.  She rolls her eyes, but gives him the scoop. Unafraid to be silly in the cause of righteousness, that was Spenser.


In the late seventies, I thought I was a clear-eyed rebel.  Things seemed simple.  Spenser stood against some things, and for some things.  His connection with Hawk, the African-American mercenary, epitomized a kind of cool, the same kind of cool, strangely, that Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little personify in Blazing Saddles—the real men, who know what it’s all about, who have cut through the denial, the hypocrisy and the bullshit to reach a place of mutual respect.  In the early Spenser books, this respect is sharp-edged, since it seemed very probable that one day each will be called upon to kill the other.  Two warriors, finding a balancing place of trust, at least for the space of a book.


Looking back, I wonder if this was the fragile, secret hope of men coming back from Viet Nam; poor white men and poor black men sent to fight someone else’s war, who reached a place of trust and understanding, and hoped it would last when they went stateside.  Well, we all know how that went.  Hawk remains an artifact of that unspoken hope.


Hawk is a bigger mystery than Spenser.  We never know Spenser’s first name, but we never know Hawk’s original name, where he was born, how he grew up, where he learned to fight, to track, to kill. We don’t know why in his spare time he reads thick tomes on geopolitics and economics while sipping Cristal. Hawk kills more easily than Spenser does, and sleeps better after it.  He is what Spenser could have become, and still could become, if he starts to cross the line, to violate his own personal Code.


Back then the whipcord-taut dialogue was a work in progress, but the lean, matter-of-fact action sequences were already perfected.  And even then, Parker wasn’t afraid to give his readers women who were smart.


Susan Silverman, Spenser’s main squeeze, a suburban Jewish Princess, is smart enough, and tough enough, to last the long haul with Spenser, and get a Harvard PhD in the process. During those books, written in the mid-eighties, we watch Spenser struggle with the changes Susan is experiencing.  The Code doesn’t provide an answer for everything. Other women characters stand out; Rachel Wallace, who is, on the surface, everything Spenser should dislike, and Patricia Utley, a madam, as elegant as a strand of pearls, smooth as an alabaster bowl, and tough as a tempered steel blade.


Back then, Spenser battled corrupt businessmen and women, the Boston political machine and its crime machine.  In the eighties, the decade of greed, when crack cocaine was introduced into the inner cities, Spenser and Hawk fought drug dealers, gangsters and murderous real estate kings.  Abandoned children, whether literally abandoned or emotionally and spiritually abandoned, figured prominently, including Paul, who becomes the son of Spenser’s heart. In one chilling book, Hawk and Spenser face a pair of soulless teenaged thrill-killers.


Spenser also battles to keep Susan, who actually leaves and takes up with a very bad man in one of the books. Along the way we find out more about the Code.  Take a pencil and make a point at the Spenser books, lay down your straight-edge and draw a line straight back through popular culture history to Yul Brummer and the Magnificent Seven.  That’s what this is about.


In the early 90s Spenser took on hypocritical right-wing hate mongers and toxically bored suburban housewives.  Those of us who had been clear-eyed rebels were becoming middle-aged, and issues were no longer so clear-cut.  Villains intertwined with good guys.  Talking points became more important that an honest conversation.  Fundamentalism of all stripes thrived.  Spenser and Susan bought a house in the suburbs, just for awhile.  Parker’s female characters grew stupid and predictable, while the men became stamped out copies of Spenser and Hawk; the latino Hawk, the gay Spenser.  (In the Sunni Randall books, we have a gay Hawk). Instead of tough cool warriors they started to seem sad and quaint; a group of “get off my lawn” old farts reminiscing about the good old days, only with guns.  Don’t get me wrong, they could still bring it.  It was what happened in the space between the electric-charged action sequences that was lacking.


It was not surprising that the assassin who nearly ended Spenser’s life was called the Gray Man.  Grayness was what Spenser and Hawk were up against now.  It’s also not surprising that in a much later book (Rough Weather) Hawk and Spenser confronted the Gray Man, and let him live, because even though he’d done bad things, he’d done them for the daughter he had just discovered.  Apparently the warrior code, the cowboy code, wasn’t just black and white either.  Sometimes it was gray. 


I didn’t like the later books very much, and yet, I remember Spenser and Paul building a cabin in the woods.  I remember Spenser driving Susan’s car somewhere.  It’s a Japanese import shaped, he tells us, like a carrot.  It has push-button, electric everything.  Spenser is driving west and the lowering sun is shining in underneath the visor, and, Spenser thinks, “There’s not a damn thing the car could do about it.”  He likes that—the fact that ingenuity and technology can’t change some things.


And I liked those books.  I loved the terse short-handed dialogue and the rhythm it gave to the prose.    I love the little bits of physical detail and description dropped here and there for the reader to trip over, discover, and carry away. I loved the things Hawk and Spenser share, like boxing, and how the gym where they work out slowly changes, becoming a Health Club with a weight room in a back, with a heavy bag and a speed-bag for the regulars.  I love how cool they were, and how cool we were, back then.


I’ll miss Mr. Parker, and I’ll miss Spenser, and I’ll be grateful for those early books, for the character who stood up for things.  For children, for people who’d been hurt. For what felt right.  For honor.  For his Code.


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