Monday, April 11, 2011

Dissin' The Old Master

An interviewer once asked Andre Gide who the best French poet was, and he said, "Victor Hugo... Alas!" If you asked a lot of people who the best Boston crime novelist is (or was), most would say Robert B. Parker. And maybe some (like me) would say, "Unfortunately..." I'm not saying Parker isn't good. My shelf of Spenser novels is like a cardboard tube of Pringles potato chips. Look that mustachioed guy on the package in the eye, open up his wares, and I guarantee you that you won't be able to eat just one. Same thing with the Spenser series. They're addictive. His writing is always crisp, the chapters short, the pace swift. He is a master of dialogue - at least in the limited venue of sarcastic repartee. He's sort of like the one guy in the orchestra who plays the cymbal, great at what he does, but what else can he do? Sell books, certainly. The Spenser series had the magic. Twenty-odd years ago, when Parker's game was still fresh, a friend of mine and I used to read every new Spenser novel that came out, and we'd have great times talking about them, comparing them to guys as diverse as Raymond Chandler and Jonathan Valin. One thing we agreed on was that Robert Urich wasn't crusty enough (and certainly not Irish enough) to play Spenser in Spenser For Hire - although Avery Brooks was perfect as Hawk. My friend and I thought a younger Brian Keith might have been better. Beyond that though, my appreciation was a lot more skeptical than his. I always found the Spenser novels a little too pat, too smugly formulaic, not really scary enough to be suspenseful and even a little bland. After my friend and I parted ways, I went years before reading another Spenser novel. I have a couple of Spenser novels sitting in my bookcase that somebody had bought for me in the nineties. I decided to read one of them recently - Playmates, an opus from 1989 about a college basketball scandal. That book pretty much revealed to me where the corpse of my long-buried misgivings about Spenser novels lay buried. Spenser never seems to sweat. He's supposed to be a guy in his fifties, but he's smackin' down coaches, arm-twisting six-foot-nine college basketball players, and never even gets out of breath. Indeed, he's zingin' out his peppy sardonic one-liners even then. The New York mob puts out a hit on him, but that doesn't faze him either. He calls in his pal, Hawk, the black Superman of Mattapan, and the two of them make light of the bad dudes like a couple of senior varsity jocks knockin' the freshmen. He never seems to experience fear. He never so much as stammers, gets the willies or becomes confused. Even his private life is perfect. His main squeeze, Susan Silverman, is beautiful, brilliant, mature, loving, wise, hot to trot - and as much of a quip artist as he is. Despite advanced middle age, Spenser's powers and fortunes are not declining, he doesn't seem to worry about his waistline or his sexual potency. The only thing middle-aged about this character is his complacency. For such a mass of muscle, he pays unseemly attention to other men's wardrobes and what he and everyone he dines with happen to be eating. At times like this, he comes off about as macho as a New York restaurant critic. His dandyish material preoccupations are more those of an affluent literary lion than those of a hard-scrabble PI. Outside of clothes, food, the comical bodily deficiencies of his antagonists, and the matter-of-fact personal magnificence of Susan and his best friend Hawk, Parker's Spenser describes nothing else with any real vividness. With Raymond Chandler, despite the murky plotlines, you get a real sense of what Los Angeles looked like. But with Parker, you get rough sketches and a few stoical asides about Boston traffic, and that's generally it. And yet, once I finished reading Playmates, I wanted to read another Spenser novel. They are still perfect little engines of entertainment. However, I do think even Parker was getting bored with Spenser's complacency towards the end. Ergo, his fine Jesse Stone series. At least Jesse Stone has flaws. He drinks (a lot, to judge from the Tom Selleck TV movies based on his character), his personal life is a shambles and he's almost certainly running away from some horrendous mistake he made. And he's definitely proof that Parker was getting sick of Spenser, too.

Official Web Site
Robert B. Parker (Wikipedia)

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