Wednesday, January 20, 2010

R.I.P. Robert B. Parker

Hard-Boiled Mysteries were originally found in the "pulp" detective magazines, but reached literary excellence in the works of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The genre typically features a lone-wolf private detective who’s cynical yet quixotic, ambiance on the mean streets of the city, characters from both the professional criminal class and the criminally rich, and liberal additions of violent action, alcohol consumption, and sex.

By the early 70s, this genre was essentially as dead as its Hollywood counterpart, Film Noir. However, a professor at Northeastern University had grown up as a fan of characters such as Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade. In 1973, Robert B. Parker’s first Spenser novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” breathed new life into the genre. This first book ignited a writing career spanning over 50 novels.

This week, the world lost this mammoth talent to the cold embrace of death. According to NPR News, “Parker and his wife, Joan, had breakfast together Monday and he was perfectly fine. She went out to do her running and when she came back about an hour later, he was dead at his desk.”

I could talk about the awards he’s won, the four series of novels he wrote, the TV shows & movies which have been inspired by those novels, or the fact he updated the hard-boiled mystery story by being the first such author to use gays, blacks, and other minorities as heroic characters. If anyone wants to sit down with me over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, I can, and happily will, talk about such topics, probably exhausting their ability to listen. However, this piece is more about personal loss, my personal loss.

ANYONE, who knows me knows I began writing my first book immediately after 2004’s general election. Yet, there were many things I didn’t know about writing a modern first person narrative. I’d heard of the Spenser series and knew they were modern first person detective stories, so I picked up Cold Service, then School Days, and on, and on…. To date, I’ve read around 55% - 60% of his work. The books have answered many questions for me regarding chapter structure, voice, story flow, and how to write a scene in which the narrator is absent. These are all valuable lessons for a writer who took social sciences, namely psychology, in college.

It may sound silly, but I had this fantasy that one day he’d read my work and really like it. That will never happen now. This week, his family will hold a private ceremony in his honor, then there will be a public memorial service for him, next month, in Boston. I’m not typically a beer drinker, but some fans refer to his work as “beer & bullets” books. Thus, since I can attend neither service, I will mark both events by having a beer in his honor.

Given his writing style and his sense of humor, if he’d known his body would be found slumped over his work at his desk, I have no doubt the he himself would have remarked, “Live by the typewriter, die by the typewriter.”

Robert B. Parker, you will be missed.

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