I didn't realize how much I missed Robert Parker until I picked up a copy of In Pursuit of Spenser, edited by Otto Penzler. It happened while I was checking out the different essays written by other mystery authors about Mr. Parker and his most famous fictional character, Spenser. I came to the profile on Spenser at the end, written by Parker in the first person as Spenser. In this essay, our private investigator is being questioned about who he is and why he's such tough guy. Susan Silverman is sitting at the table while her friend throws questions at Spenser and he answers them with a wry sense of humor and his usual outright honesty. After a couple of lines, I was hooked without even realizing it. I felt at home with myself like I'd just run into a close friend I hadn't seen in years and could now play catch up with. I read the profile of Spenser, smiling to myself, enjoying his and Susan's company once again. You see, they are my friends, and it's always fun to re-encounter the bantering that goes on between the two of them and also in finding out how Spenser views himself and life in general. In the profile of Spenser, he talks about himself, his love for Susan, his code of honor, and his life as a private eye. This is a fabulous look at the character so many other writers try to emulate.
Of course, it dawned on me afterwards that Robert Parker has now been dead for two years. It doesn't seem that long. I guess the fact he still had three unpublished novels due to come out during the following eighteen months after his died of a heart attack helped to keep him alive in my mind's eye. There was also the "Jesse Stone" television series with Tom Selleck and its continuation on CBS at the end of each spring. Last, Michael Brandman (producer and writer of the "Jesse Stone" television series) continued the "Jesse Stone" novels with Robert B. Parker's Killing the Blues, which came out last September. Ace Atkins is continuing the "Spenser" series with Robert B. Parker's Lullaby. This novel is due this coming week, at the beginning of May. With all of this going on, it's easy to forget one of the greatest writers of the private eye genre is no longer with us.
The thought shook me to the bone.
Robert Parker had his own unique style of writing (or voice as Lawrence Block calls it) that looked easy and simple to the eye, but wasn't. It also sounded great. Others have attempted to use it in their own writing, but the fact is, no one can. Mr. Parker's voice was his own and no one will be able to replace it. That thought also dawn on me. This was an author who wrote short novels that the publisher had to make look longer so the readers would feel they were getting their money's worth. I thought I was the only one who noticed it, but Lawrence Block mentions the same thing in his essay. Still, it never made any difference to me. I loved visiting with Spenser, Susan, Hawk, and the rest of the gang for the few hours it took me to read each novel. Another thing is that sixty percent of each Spenser novel is basically dialogue with he said/she said. I dare say it was the dialogue I loved the most about the novels. That was when you found out about Spenser's morality and code of honor, how much he loved Susan Silverman, how he felt about his friends and about life and all the little things that connect the dots in the series. I also loved Spenser's smart aleck remarks, his sense of wit and sarcasm, and how his friends viewed it. I remember Lt. Marty Quirk telling Spenser one day that he wasn't half as funny as he thought he was. I forget Spenser's comeback, but I know he had one.
Here's a strange thing. Though I've read all the Spenser novels, if you were to throw a title at me, I wouldn't be able to tell you what the novel was about. As soon as I would finish a book, I would forget it. I think Mr. Parker did the same thing when he wrote them. The only scene I remember from the forty novels is when Spenser finally rescues Susan Silverman after she has been gone for years. He kicks a door down, takes two-or-three bullets to his body, and nearly dies to save her life. You see he loved Susan in way that was eternal and romantic and worth giving up one's life for. That scene has always stuck in the back of my mind (I can't even tell you which novel it was in) because if I ever loved someone else as much as Spenser loved Susan, I'd die to save them, too. So, a large part of the fun in reading a Spenser novel was the interaction between our private eye and his main squeeze. It reminds me of a line from Edgar Allen Poe's Annabel Lee--"But we loved with a love that was more than a love, I and my Annabel Lee."
All of the above feelings came back to me as I read this anthology by other authors who were also fans of Robert Parker and his writing. It made me realize that no matter how hard Michael Brandman and Ace Atkins try, they will never be able to be Robert Parker. They understand that, too. I think once the fact is accepted by Mr. Parker's fans, it'll okay to go ahead and read the new versions of Spenser and Jesse Stone and to enjoy them for what they are and in remembrance of the man who created these very special characters. Both Michael Brandman and Ace Atkins are fans of Robert Parker, and I firmly believe they do this out of their own love for the author and his creations. The publishers are probably doing it for the money though I suspect the fans of Robert Parker still want to keep the characters of Spenser and Jesse Stone alive for at least a few more years. We aren't ready to let go just yet. I know I'm not. Here's a point Lawrence Block made. He mentioned in his essay that a publisher told him new novels about the characters have to keep coming out for the publisher to keep the older books in print. I hadn't thought about this. I suppose it does take either new novels coming out or movie adaptations of the older books to keep the novels alive and in print. After all, the publishing business, like all others, is about making money.
Okay, so what about In Pursuit of Spenser?
Is it good or bad?
If you're a Robert Parker or Spenser fan, you'll probably love this collection of essays by other fans who happen to be writers themselves. I certainly did. It was like getting together with a bunch of like-minded individuals to celebrate the life of someone you all cared about. I seriously doubt if non-fans will get much out of this, though I might be wrong.
The collection is edited by Otto Penzler, who owns perhaps the greatest mystery bookstore in the world--The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City. Mr. Penzler is also the founder of The Mysterious Press, which has been publishing novels by the best writers in the genre for over thirty-five years. I have a lot of the "Parker" novels in hardcover by Richard Stark (aka Donald E. Westlake) that were published by The Mysterious Press. Mr. Penzler knew Robert Parker and is a big fan of his fiction.
You know, I wouldn't really call these essays, but rather "talks" from one fan to another about one of their most favorite authors and their relationship with him.
For starters, there's an excellent introduction by Otto Penzler on his friendship with Robert Parker and what the Spenser novels mean to him. This was so brilliantly written, as were the rest, it could very well be referred to as an essay for graduate school, but I'll call it a "talk" by a professor of the mystery genre.
The first chapter, or essay, or talk, by the collaborators is the Songs Spenser Taught Me. Here, Ace Atkins, the author who's continuing the Spenser series, discusses how the novels changed his life and caused him to become a writer. I think this discussion is important because Mr. Atkin's new Spenser novel comes out in a few more days. I've read two of this author's novels, and he certainly has a different style of writing than Bob Parker did. It's going to be interesting to see what he does with the character and series, and if he succeeds with the millions of loyal fans around the world.
Then, there's a talk by Dennis Lehane, and it's one of the best in the book. Lehane is the author of the Patrick Kenzie/Angela Gennaro series, Mystic River, Shutter Island, and A Given Day. For several years, the Boston media hailed Lehane as the author who was going to surpass Parker and his Spenser novels. Lehane won't say if it caused any conflict between him and Parker, but it was the gorilla sitting in the middle of the room they never talked about whenever they were brought together for a book signing. The important thing is it was the Spenser novels that inspired Lehane to become a writer. He was working at a bookstore in Boston as a teenager and had the opportunity to put together a book signing for Mr. Parker. Afterwards, he walked Parker outside and asked his advice about writing. Parker answered his question and then headed home on foot. Years later when they met as equals, Parker didn't remember the book signing or the question he'd been asked. Celebrities meet so many fans over the course of a decade that they tend to forget the events and circumstances. For the fan, however, those few minutes might be a life changing occurrence. It's certainly something they never forget. Anyway, Bob Parker changed Lehane's life, not to mention others.
In another talk, Lawrence Block, who didn't know Parker very well, but read most of his books, discusses a comment Parker once made. Parker said the reason he had so many fans was because the books sounded right. And they do. Robert Parker wrote simplistic, yet often brilliant dialogue that conveyed a ton of information with a few choice words and they were always perfect for the moment at hand. Block remembered a book signing in which Bob Parker answered questions from his fans. One of the questions was whether or not he ever read his books once they were finished. He didn't. Anyway, Mr. Parker saw Lawrence Block standing in the rear of the crowd. He asked him--"How about you, Larry? Do you ever read your own work?" "I read nothing else," Block said. Block was happy he'd been able to hit the pitched ball back to Parker so quickly and with a sense of humor.
There's also a nice talk by author Jeremiah Healy, who probably knew Bob Parker as well as any other author. Mr. Healy is the writer of the John Francis Cuddy novels. Here, he discusses his friendship with Mr. Parker over the years and how when they first met. The first time they got together, they met in a Boston bar and Mr. Parker gave him some sound advice of getting an agent and why it was important. It's a great essay to read, especially when Mr. Healy talks about how Bob felt with the casting of the television series, Spenser: For Hire, with the late Robert Urich. I'd known for a number of years that the author hadn't been happy with the selection of Robert Urich as Spenser. Still, Robert Urich was a lot better than Eric Estrada would have been. Estrada was next in line to be cast for the role. I saw the first season of Spenser: For Hire before I started reading the novel, so I've always pictured Robert Urich in the role of Spenser. He may not be as tall or as well built as the character of Spenser, but I believe he managed to capture the heart and soul of Spenser, especially with regards to his code of honor and his total love for Susan Silverman. Barbara Stock will always be the perfect actress who played Susan Silverman to me.
Max Allen Collins and Matthew Clements discuss the television series Spenser: For Hire and the television-made movies that were based on the Spenser novels. This is an entertaining essay for fans of the TV series and Robert Urich. I have to admit, however, that I haven't seen any of the movies, especially the ones with Joe Mantegna as Spenser. I've had the opportunity to see the Mantegna movies, but passed on it. Though I think Joe Mantegna is an excellent actor in most of the roles he plays, he is definitely not Spenser. I've always felt he was miscast for the role. All of this is talked about in the essay. What's also mentioned is how the producers got rid of Barbara Stock after the first season for no apparent reason. Carolyn McCormick took over in Season Two as Rita Fiore. Barbara Stock was finally brought back for Season Three, but by then the damage had been done. Robert Urich always felt he should have fought for Barbara Stock when the producers got rid of her at the end of the first season. Well, there were too many changes in Season Three. The opening musical theme for the show was changed and Richard Jaeckel was out as Lt. Martin Quirk. He simply disappeared and nothing was said. I've thought the first two seasons were the best, but Season One is tops in my opinion. Though the writers made the character of Sergeant Frank Belson (played by Ron McLarty, author of the new novel, The Dropper) the comic relief for the show (trust me, the character of Belson in the books was not that of a funny guy or buffoon), I felt the rest of the weekly cast was perfect. In the novels, Belson is a serious and tough character police officer, and I think McLarty could have played him that way if given half a chance.
There's a listing of all the Spenser: For Hire episodes for each season in this book, plus a listing for the Spenser television movies.
One last talk I want to mention is by the great fiction writer, Ed Gorman. He discusses the westerns Bob Parker wrote, starting with Gunman's Rhapsody, which is the author's take on the Wyatt Earp legend. I have the novel, but haven't read it. Mr. Gorman then go into the four Virgil Cole/Everett Hitch novels: Appaloosa, Resolution, Brimstone and Blue-Eyed Devil. Just as Tom Selleck proved to be perfect for the character of Jesse Stone on television, both Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen are every bit as excellent in the roles of Cole and Hitch for the movies. I loved the film adaptation of Appaloosa. Unfortunately, the movie didn't break even, but I still hope there might be more Cole/Hitch films down the road. I know I want to go back and re-read the last three novels. Ed Gorman does a terrific job in discussing Bob Parker's take on the western and his desire for authenticity. Like Spenser and Jesse Stone, I hated to see the Cole/Hitch series end. I'm not a reader of westerns, but Mr. Parker got me hooked on his books.
Other essays or talks by Parnell Hall, Loren D. Estleman, Brendan DuBois, S.J. Rozan, the late Robert Parker, and others fill this excellent book. Hawk and Susan Silverman are carefully looked at as is the character of Jesse Stone.
As I've already stated, this is a book written by fans of Robert Parker and Spenser for the other fans out there. If you're a collector of the Spenser novels, then you'll this want on the shelf with them. Some of the essays are so well written that it makes me ashamed to call myself a writer. Anyway, In Pursuit of Spenser is a wonderful addition to the works of Robert B. Parker and for his fans to mull over during their spare time. You may agree with some of what's said or you may disagree. It doesn't matter. This is still a fun read that brings back wonderful memories of the man who created Spenser, Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall, and Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch. Highly recommended!