Robert B. Parker
Often I find myself wondering about the economics of publishing. I’ve had book clubs and book retailers as clients, so I know something about the retail end of the business. What I haven’t a clue about is the author end.
How is it, for example, that a veteran journalist can pen a bestseller and suddenly find themself a millionaire, asked to play in the Artists and Writers Charity Softball Game, while the journeyman author of a well-received mystery series has to turn out a book a year to live an upper-middle-class life?
Mind you, I’ve the problems of neither a millionaire nor a successful mystery writer. But if one were to need an impetus to start such an inquiry one could do worse than Robert B. Parker, the creator of Spenser and a couple of other recurring heroes. Parker was a man famously focused on his writing as a means to provide for his family’s security and comfort. Art be damned, Parker was all about commerce.
From that standpoint, he was no slouch. There are 40 Spenser novels and, though he expanded the stable comparatively late in his career, he had three other series in print as well. Two were outgrowths of the Spenser series. Improbably–and in the opposite order followed by his near contemporary, the great Elmore Leonard–the last series he started was a Western. Essentially, Parker published every 9 months or so.
I first encountered Parker and Spenser at about the dozenth title in the series. I’d purchased the just-published title, A Catskill Eagle, as a birthday present for my not-yet-affianced girlfriend, only to have the hardback tossed at my head. She didn’t read mysteries, I learned; she read Dick Francis.
So I read it. I can’t say I was hooked or that it stands out as the strongest in the line. But all the elements were present. Spenser is an old school tough guy and former statie who boxed and has the flattened nose to prove it. He sweats at a gym, served in the Korean War and was raised by his father and uncles in a female-free environment. Like many such heroes, Spenser is timeless. If he really had served in Korea and the book takes place in the present at the time it was written, he’d be 70 years old.
Spenser holds none of the scruples of the present or any other moment. Slightly larger than life in every sense, he quotes The Faerie Queen, has an on-going relationship–almost a common-law marriage–with a Jewish psychiatrist and has a sidekick/best friend who is a felonious, former boxer. Hawk is deadly–violence and vengeance wrapped in the toned, sculpted and well-maintained body of a tall black man. Hawk speaks in three modes–laconic, an odd parody of African-American vernacular English and, rarely, standard English.
Spenser is also a wise-ass and a man with a code. I’m a sucker for a personal code because I understand the need to do what you must in the way that you must. It helps that there’s a lot of overlap between my personal conception and Spenser’s. I do, however, bear a full moniker. If either Hawk or Spenser has a first name, I’ve never encountered it.
Many of the Spenser novels revolve around Boston, the only other city I’ve ever seriously considered living in or near. Not this one, though. Here we find Spenser hired to prove a group of ruffians–The Dell–killed a tour operator in Potshot, Arizona. His widow wants justice done to these creeps who terrorize the town and are driving the good people out.
Spenser ventures west to have a look and finds a town full of loonies. The police chief, like the widow Buckman, is a transplant from Los Angeles. There are a couple of those in the town, which also sportsc pocket-lining politicians, shady lawyers, greedy real estate types and taciturn barmen. There are enough over-sexed people running around this part of the Southwest to start another Sandstone.
Soon enough, Spenser gets to meet The Delland their leader, Preacher. It’s a bit one-sided as encounters go. The Dell are playing at being tough, Spenser really is. When he drops the biggest, scariest thug in the middle of Main Street, the local gentry come calling, ultimately hiring Spenser to clean out The Dell and return their town to them. The job pays handsomely and Spenser accepts.
What ensues has more in common with the war movies and Westerns I grew up watching with my grandparents than most of the other Spenser titles. If I were making a studio pitch, I’d say, “It’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral meets The Dirty Dozen.” I looked up where this title falls in the Spenser line-up and I should be forgiven for assuming it was near the end. Assembling a band of like-minded criminal brothers–each of whom has had a prior encounter with Spenser–to fight the really bad guys had an almost elegiac feel to it.
I’m not going to say much more about the plot. There are a couple of twists that help maintain interest in the storyline and Spenser bops around the United States like the business development manager of an ERP software firm.
I wonder, though, if Parker’s pace isn’t as tough on his editors as himself. Early on, after Spenser’s first encounter with The Dell, he’s approached by a group of leading citizens. The first words of the chapter are, “The day after my first fight…” yet within a page one of the characters is talking as if the fight had just wrapped up. It’s a minor thing, but it seems a product of not having enough time to come back for a fresh read.
As these things go, that’s a minor quibble. To circle back, this isn’t art, it’s entertainment. And as a work of entertainment, it’s worth your time.