Saturday, January 23, 2010

Five Favorite Robert B. Parker Novels

I meant to post this yesterday, but the day got away from me — as the week and the entire month have. Here it is January 23, and I am in Maine when I had not planned to be, and feeling rather frustrated and thwarted and annoyed and several things I generally hate to be. But tonight I'm going to see Monmouth Community Players' production of "Love, Sex and the IRS," so it's an ill wind that blows no good.

The passing of Robert B. Parker, earlier this week, feels like the end of an era. Parker, whom I was lucky enough to meet a few times, was such a distinctive and iconic figure that he flirted with self-parody. He was not Spenser, he said, but Spenser was undoubtedly a wish-fulfillment version of him.

Spenser never retired, and neither did Parker. Reports say that he died at his desk, working on the next book; I haven't heard whether that book was a Spenser novel, a Sunny Randall, a Jesse Stone, or something else. SPLIT IMAGE, the ninth Jesse Stone novel, will be published in February.

Parker wrote or co-wrote 70 books over a career that spanned just over 36 years. (He was 41 when the first Parker novel was published, which should inspire anyone thinking about a midlife career change.) Some of those books were better than others; some of those books felt perfunctory, to put it kindly. But more than anyone else, Robert B. Parker deserves credit for bringing the hard-boiled detective novel into the late 20th century, and beyond. His loss leaves a hole that no one can fill.

These are my own five favorites. Leave yours in the comments section.

1. CEREMONY, 1982. A Spenser novel, the ninth. Spenser reluctantly agrees to find missing teenager April Kyle; he refuses when her father, a loud and obnoxious insurance salesman, tries to hire him, but agrees to do it for April's mother, at the urging of Susan Silverman. (His fee is a dollar; I always wondered how Spenser's finances worked.) Following April's trail, he finds a web of kinky prostitution and child pornography, which April seems to have embraced. Spenser and Susan rescue her, but April persuades them not to return her to her parents, and they find a place for her in an unexpected refuge. I read CEREMONY sometime in college, and its moral ambiguity both shocked and comforted me. Although Spenser's own moral code is fairly rigid, he acknowledges in this book that he doesn't live in a black-and-white world. It is interesting to compare this book with Dennis Lehane's GONE BABY GONE.

2. A CATSKILL EAGLE, 1985. Another story of moral ambiguities and the realization that every choice limits future choices. Spenser's on-again, off-again relationship with psychotherapist Susan Silverman got annoying, then ridiculous, but everything you need to know about their connection is in this book. That said, the more interesting relationship here is the one between Spenser and Hawk, not the one between Spenser and Susan. Susan, having fled to the West Coast to find out who she is without Spenser, calls Spenser to tell him that Hawk has been jailed, and that she is worried that she too may be in some trouble. She's taken up with the heir to a major business conglomerate that makes most of its money dealing arms; her new boyfriend's father, Jerry Costigan, is a man the FBI and CIA would like to see out of the picture. Spenser busts Hawk out of prison, and cuts a deal with the Feds to assassinate Jerry Costigan in exchange for immunity.

3. SMALL VICES, 1997. Spenser shows his age for the first time in this novel; he's a Korean War vet, after all, and aging more or less in real time, though Spenser at 60 is still one badass mofo. When Spenser's investigation theatens to prove the innocence of a man convicted of murder, the real murderer — a mysterious figure known as the Gray Man — shoots and nearly kills Spenser. Spenser retreats to Santa Barbara for a long rehabilitation in the company of Susan and Hawk, and makes his way back with a renewed understanding of what really matters to him.

4. FAMILY HONOR, 1999. Introduces Boston PI Sunny Randall; I read a review that said Parker created this series with the idea that it would become a TV series starring his friend Helen Hunt. That's interesting, because I've never imagined Sunny Randall as a blonde. Nevertheless, Sunny is a believable female protagonist, and very different from Spenser. Her Boston terrier, Rosie, is an equally vivid character, and Parker does a brilliant job of giving us Sunny's backstory: she originally wanted to be a painter, and has loving but exasperated relationships with her parents and her ex-husband. Her ex-husband, in fact, plays a key role in this book's investigation, the hunt for a politician's runaway daughter.

5. ALL OUR YESTERDAYS, 1994. A sweeping saga about three generations of two Boston families, the Sheridans and the Winslows, whose fates are inextricably linked. Some critics hammered this book for its melodrama and sentimentality, but I didn't care, and still don't. The characters were people I recognized (in some cases, from my own extended family), and I bought into it and was thoroughly entertained. If memory serves, my Grandma Lamb lent me this book, and she loved it too. I hope I told Mr. Parker that my grandmother loved this book; I meant to.


norby said...

I read the Spenser novels back in the '80s, but now I prefer the Sunny Randall novels. It's a little convenient that her ex is from a family that everyone is afraid of, but the stories are usually good.

John Schramm said...

I liked CATSKILL EAGLE for the same reasons you mentioned, especially for the generous helping of banter between Spenser and Hawk.

But my all time favorite has to be EARLY AUTUMN, which introduced a new recurring character, Paul Giacomin -- a troubled kid with bad parents, who Spenser takes under his wing.

AnswerGirl said...

In later years I too preferred the Sunny Randall books, but would still pick up the new Spenser novels, because it felt like spending time with a beloved (if exasperating) uncle, or former teacher.

John, I think EARLY AUTUMN is a particular favorite for male readers, because it's about an idealized father-and-son relationship; I appreciate it, but it doesn't have the same emotional resonance for me.

Anonymous said...

I keep posting comments about RBP (how many books do I have with that scrawl on the title page), but his passing has hit me hard for some reason.

I discovered Parker in the late 70's and have been a devoted fan through thick (All Our Yesterdays) and thin (Crimson Joy) ever since. Not that there weren't times I was ready to call it a day, but every time I felt like giving up on him (and there were times) he would come out with something new that was great and would bring me right back on board.

End of an era is correct.

Richard B.

My 5 favs:

Looking for Rachel Wallace
(Great laugh out loud banter)

Early Autumn
(agree - parent wish fulfillment -- but I wanted to build a cabin with my dad after this)

Small Vices
(best line ever delivered to a bad guy is in this book)

All Our Yesterdays
(heartfelt, and deeper than many of his books - I was sorry that that critics hit this book so hard. I think it kept Parker from attempting anything like it again.)

Death in Paradise
(Jesse Stone is one of the "new" characters that Parker was working with and probably his most complex ... Tom Selleck was born to play him.)

(no one ever talks about this book... an every man caught up in circumstances way out of his depth. Proves the adage "no good deed goes unpunished." I know this book has been in Hollywood development hell for decades -- I read a script version of it once back in the early 90's with Richard Dreyfus attached to star. Can't understand why it hasn't been made yet.)

AnswerGirl said...

Thanks, Richard — I have not read WILDERNESS, and will pick up a copy right away!

RBP is on record as being a big fan of Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone. He was equally vocal about disliking Robert Urich as Spenser.