Wednesday, 20 January 2010


My obituary of the great detective novelist Robert B Parker is in today's Guardian; you can link to it here. I read Parker from the first novel, and probably read just about all of them, and the bit about the Chandler revival was true; those Ballantine editions with the glossy covers were very popular, and I wrote an essay at the time for a magazine called Starling, about discovering Chandler. Maybe I'll dig it out and reprint it here. I've written a lot about Parker over the years, and my attitude toward him is summed up in one of my favourite 'interviews'; a review of Trouble In Paradise which you can link to from the 'Bullseyes' section to the right, or by hitting the link here.

I felt unusually odd writing the obit because last month I finished an essay on Boston for Following The Detectives, a Maxim Jakubowski-edited anthology about various cities and their detectives, which was predominantly about George Higgins, Parker, and Dennis Lehane. And in November I reviewed his Spenser novel The Professional, linked to here, which is worth reading because it summarises both the strengths and weaknesses of his later work. But I could still hear what I'd written then echoing around my head, Parker's death was that unexpected.

The obit ran mostly as written, allowing for the usual oddities of style (Colby College became Colby college, though one would never see Oxford university in the British press; the actress Helen Hunt became an actor), but lost was one comment on why Parker's slighter work remained entertaining; the wise-cracking Spenser usually got the zingers to end each chapter--zinger was probably thought to need explanation.

More crucially, an entire paragraph on his westerns was cut. This was odd, because it reflected the earlier reference to Rich Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation, because it connected Tom Selleck to the Jesse Stone films, which also thus go unmentioned, because Gunman's Rhapsody is an important work within his output, because Appaloosa was a quality film, and a successful one, and also because the forthcoming fourth novel in the Cole and Hitch series is mentioned in the final paragraph, but with no explanation, as if the previous reference had not been excised. Anyway, here's the missing bit, which was the penultimate graf in my copy:
In 2001, Parker's novel Gunman's Rhapsody recast Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday as Spenser and Hawk; which led to his working on the screenplay for the 2003 TV movie remake of the classic Monte Walsh, starring Tom Selleck. Selleck then played Jesse Stone in a series of TV movies between 2005-09, with one remaining unaired. Parker's 2005 western, Appaloosa, was made into an excellent film by the actor Ed Harris, and spawned two more novels featuring lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. 

I could go on about how the link between westerns and detective stories is so important, but mostly I'd like to end by remembering just how much pleasure Parker's writing brought me over the years, and how much we will miss him now that he's gone.


Unknown said...

The obituary begins by saying that Parker took up the baton of Chandler's 'wisecracking' dialogue but there is none of this dialogue in the obituary, no taste of the novels prose or dialogue. If Parker was a wisecracker shouldn't there be some examples?

Michael Carlson said...

It's a question of space. You could just as well ask for examples of his plots, of his recipes, sample chapters, sample descriptions or scenes. Had I more space to work with, or had Parker written fewer books, I'd have loved to do that. If you follow to link to my 'interview' with him, you may get a sense...

Unknown said...

I do not think an obituary can give a sample chapter very easily, but in the space there could be some examples of Parker's wit. I wonder if he was as good a letter writer as Chandler?

Cameron Hughes said...


"I pulled the MG in beside him at the curb and he got in.
"This thing ain't big enough for either one of us," he said. "When you getting something that fits?"
"It goes with my preppy look," I said. "You get one of these, they let you drive around the north shore, watch polo, anything you want."
I let the clutch in and turned right on Dartmouth.
"How you get laid in one of these?" Hawk said.
"You just don't understand preppy," I said. "I know it's not your fault. You're only a couple generations out of the jungle. I realize that. But if you're preppy you don't get laid in a car."
"Where do you get laid if you preppy?"
I sniffed. "One doesn't" I said.
"Preppies gonna be outnumbered in a while" Hawk said."

Unknown said...

Thanks, Mr Cameron. Quite neat, more of a sense of Parker's style. Especially as the crime novel is lacking wisecrackers right now in England.

Chas said...

Even though Parker's love of Westerns comes through in his writing. (I'm thinking of Spenser watching the Magnificent Seven and saying the "We deal in lead, friend" line at the same time as Steve McQueen says it.) I've only ever read one Western "Welcome to Hard Times". Maybe Parker's Westerns are a good place to start.

The two Roberts (Parker and Heinlein)have taught me lot and caused me to think a lot about what it means to be a man. I'll miss his books, jokes,and magnetic writing.

Michael Carlson said...

A couple of crime writers have produced excellent westerns, particularly Elmore Leonard (the collection of his short stories is an awesome book) and Loren Estleman, who also did a Tombstone novel, as well as a number of other excellent and off-beat westerns in the last decade.