Too many of my good friends contributed to In Pursuit of Spenser, a collection of essays about Robert B. Parker and his writing, for me to be unbiased or, conversely, too critical in my review.
The line-up of authors that editor Otto Penzler assembled for the book includes Loren D. Estleman, Parnell Hall, Brendan DuBois, Gary Phillips, Lawrence Block, Dennis Lehane, Max Allan Collins, SJ Rozan, Jeremiah Healy, Ed Gorman, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Spenser's new author, Ace Atkins.
I'll just say that some of the essays are much stronger than others and don't quite jell as a whole. There's a great, indepth book to be written about Parker and his work and this isn't quite it. For the most part, this book just skims the surface, but I get the sense that's exactly what Penzler was going for. Something as breezy and light as Parker's fiction.
At times, the book reads more like an extended memorial, what friends and admirers might have stood up at the podium to say at Parker's service, had they been given the chance. And it's those essays in particular, the more personal ones from Lehane and Block, that are the most entertaining and revealing. Block obviously admired Parker's craftmanship but also didn't pull any punches. You can read his chapter here.
15 thoughts on “In Pursuit of Spenser”
Has anyone discovered Spenser’s first name? I went back about a decade ago and read ALL the books and couldn’t find any reference to Spenser’s first name.
Did Parker ever mention a name or why there isn’t one?
Block hits a lot of excellent points, particularly on Parker’s concept of “plot construction.” though yeah, he nails why anyone read Parker: we just liked the way it sounded.
The Bride has watched me read dozens of Parkers over the years, and she always asks me if I liked it and I almost always say, “Well, it’s not as good as his earlier ones, but it was a nice fast read.” I especially thought this about ROUGH WEATHER, though I did like POTSHOT. From the 90s on, I think Parker nailed it about one-in-three, which isn’t bad when you’re churning out three or four books a year, I suppose.
Okay, we all know that I adore RBP’s writing. We also know that you, Lee, do not. And each of us is entitled to our opinion. I see him as the consummate master of form, and you see him as writing in a way that you do not respect. I can understand that. You have your standards, and he does not measure up to them. But I would argue that personal standards are not the way to judge a writer’s work. For example, I find that I abhor most romance writing, but that does not mean that, of its kind, it is not good. It just means I don’t like it. Therefore, I do not say it is ‘bad’, I just excuse myself from judging it.
Similarly, I would argue that there is very little, if any, ‘objective’ criticism of RBP. Lawrence Block is a master writer, a thrilling analyst of writing, and always a gentleman, but his essay on RBP was not about RBP, but about his own opinions. He may judge as he sees fit, and his insights are fascinating, but he is expressing his own thoughts, he is not providing insights into RBP. That’s fair enough. But, for me, if I read an essay on RBP, I want to know more about RBP, not about the essayist, however talented and fascinating his personality might be. Mr. Block came up with one nugget of gold about Parker. He noted that Parker wrote the best action scenes. That they are crystal clear, and can be seen in the mind’s eye. This, in fact, is true, and refreshing. He spoke about Parker objectively, and this is what I want to read about when I read an essay about Parker. I want to know WHY the reading experience is SO good. I want to know what Parker is doing to make it so. In other words, I want an objective analysis. The essence of critical writing is to see clearly what the author is doing, not whether the essayist likes it or not.
My own (short) take on Parker is that since `Potshot`, all of the Spenser novels are masterpieces. For what they do, they are perfection. I know this because I have made a study of the plot of each book. That is, Parker has a command of how the premise breaks down into 5 acts. Act 1 comprises the first 15 chapters. Act 2, the next 10, ending in chapter 25. Act 3, the next fifteen, ending in chapter 40. Act 4, like Act 2, is 10 chapters, ending in chapter 50. Act 5 is 15 chapters, ending in chapter 65. But being the supurb master of form that he was, Parker begin adding chapters in Act 5, which made the endings more dramatic, and so some of the Act 5`s have more than 15 chapters. I could go more deeply into the analysis. But the point is, not only could Parker write great action scenes, he could compose scenes that fed from one into the other like no one else. Chandler said that Hammet could write scene after scene that was unique. Parker could write Act after Act that was unique, that led unerring from chapter to chapter, that only increased the dramatic tension as the story advanced, that NEVER let the dramatic tension slacken or release. I would not agree that Parker just got the sound of it right. That he could just do it, it`s a mystery. Instead, I would argue that he got the form right, and achieved his overall effect by increasing the dramatic tension from chapter to chapter. This is what Hammet did so brilliantly in `The Maltese Falcon`and `The Thin Man`.
And what Chandler did so fabulously in `The Big Sleep.` But RBP did it in story after story. And this explains why so many readers read his books all the way to the end, one after another.
Okay, I`m a fan. But I have my reasons.
Another thing. It’s true that Parker’s stories can be breezy, but they are never light. Each is a thematic investigation into a topical, fascinating issue, and he always goes deeper than the reader expects. This is one reason why the very spare prose can be deeply satisfying. Yes, I like the sound of it, but I like the thoughtfulness, the insight, of it even better.
You make the point that a reader’s dislike or disappointment in a piece of writing does not make the writing itself “bad”. By the same token, I’d argue that a reader’s disappointment in writing does not amount to a lack of respect for the writing or the author. My own disappointment in Parker’s later work stems from how impressed I was with his earlier work. Because Parker’s writing is so clear and spare, it’s easy for me to see when there’s less behind it. Can you honestly say that every patch of repetitive dialogue, every old joke contributed to the “perfection” of a Parker novel?
Lee and all of us commenting on this post are all Parker fans. Everyone who contributed to IN PURSUIT OF SPENSER is a Parker fan. His writing appeals to each of us for different reasons. You say you want an objective analysis, but I don’t know that anyone’s particular take on Parker or degree of admiration can be expressed objectively. An objective assessment might be one long book on Parker with subjective comments from many writers, friends, and critics. In other words, the various opinions on Parker and his work would balance out to an objective look at him.
Lee points out that the collection only skims the surface of Parker’s impact on P.I. fiction. Smart Pop books aim to be accessible and engaging, not blatantly rigorous or academic. This is not the deepest look into Parker’s work, and I agree some essays are better executed than others, but in large part, these are the people I’d want to hear from about Parker. This collection gives the general public an idea of what Parker meant to P.I. fiction, and it might get more people to read him.
Gerald, are you sure everybody’s a Parker fan, here? If some of the comments come from fans, I can only imagine what the detractors would say.
You have pointed out the weak points in my argument, that ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ are words that are hard to define, but my basic point is this:
Suppose a reader has never heard of RBP before, never read one of his books, and happens to purchase ‘Potshot’ and read it. There would be no ‘disappointment-from-reading-other-RBP-books’ in the experience. My belief is that the reader would find his work to be wonderful, and buy more books and love them. There would be a simple appreciation for what the book is, and not what it is not. That’s what so much of Parker criticism is, that his books were not like his early books. This kind of comparison tells us nothing about the more recent books, and greatly under-appreciates them. In fact, it blinds long-time RBP fans from seeing the incredible achievement that his books from ‘Potshot’ on represent.
The bias against the later books, I conclude, has something to do with a lacking in them of a strong sense of place. I’m reading ‘Valediction’ for about the sixth time, it’s a favorite, and if an editor edited out the descriptions of the settings in the chapters, pared them down to the bone, the story would be very like the later works. I don’t see them as being inferior stories. Just the opposite. They became more and more emotionally vivid from ‘Potshot’ on. They touch the reader. They are by far better than anybody else’s work.
It irks me that critics say that Parker’s jokes are ‘tired’ or that the banter is ‘getting old’ etc. What they mean is they don’t like it. I do. The only Spenser book I didn’t like was ‘Playmates,’ and it is the one with the least joking and bantering. Not liking something doesn’t mean it’s bad. The true fans find it uplifting.
What I want from an essay on Parker is a deeper understanding of the books. Why does everybody talk about themselves when they write about Parker? Maybe it’s because his books go so deep and are so affecting. I expect professional writers to provide insights about the writing.
Anyway, I’m glad you’re a Parker fan!
I am a huge Parker fan. I broke into TV as a writer on SPENSER FOR HIRE. When he was at his best, he was the best.
But I think his last bunch of books have been awful, and not because they lacked a sense of place…but because the author got incredibly lazy in plot and dialog. By the end, he’d become the David Caruso of authors…his books became unintentional satires of himself, mere shadows of his earlier, stellar work.
What was interesting, though, was that occasionally he could get it up again, literary speaking. His first couple of Jesse Stones were great, as was his first western…but then those series, too, became parodies of themselves. The last couple of Jesse Stones were among the worst things he ever wrote.
Ideally, a writer’s job is not only to please new readers but also to keep returning ones engaged. It’s great that you’re still engaged, but many longtime Parker fans were not as engaged as they had been. If you want, we can say they just didn’t like the later books as much. But Parker had something of an obligation to keep them engaged, and he seemed to ignore it. The Spenser series had no overarching story between books after A CATSKILL EAGLE.
As you say, I think it is possible to appreciate each book on its own to some extent, but longtime readers also build overviews of series as a whole. These overviews should allow them to appreciate each book in a way new readers can’t. They can only do this, though, if the author pays attention to continuity. Many authors are better than Parker was at engaging new and returning readers at the same time. They build overarching stories into their books. They realize when they’ve used a plot device or a joke or a phrase too frequently. Parker, on the other hand, wrote his later books in five- and ten-page chunks with no master plan, no revision, and no read-through when he was done–all by his own admission. At the very least, we can say his later process wasn’t conducive to overarching stories/continuity.
You ask why everybody talks about themselves when talking about Parker. I’d say readers talk about themselves when talking about any writing. After all, they are trying to share what the writing means to them. Without that personal, subjective context, no one could say anything about Parker’s writing that hasn’t already been said: At its best, it had a distinct eloquence and widened the scope of P.I. fiction by crossing racial and religious lines. Very dryly stated. I, for one, want the personal angle. When you say you didn’t like PLAYMATES, I want to know why. The only way you can tell me is by digging deeper into your own “like/dislike” of Parker’s work.
Lee, if you say you are a huge Parker fan, I believe you, yet your comments on him seem to be very negative, I never hear you say you like anything he’s doing. What I see is, you like earlier Spenser’s. Which is fine. I do too. But what worked in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s won’t work today. Tastes have changed. Since the year 2000, what the audience wants is PLOT, not place, not character, not elaborate theme, not satire, not irony. This is proved by the success of James Patterson and Parker. The pared down style, the short one-scene chapters, the triumph of dialogue over description and narrative is what occurred. Parker excelled in this since “Potshot” but it is a style you don’t like. You like the works written from 1973 through to, maybe, 1990. Okay. It’s like a rock-n-roll lover coming up against Rap. It will never be the same or as good as the previous era. Maybe not, but my appreciation of RBP since “Potshot” involves no comparison to his earlier works. That’s comparing apples to oranges. His later works are of a different kind, and, I would argue, the best of this kind. The public taste since 2000 is for very fast-moving plots, which Parker delivered.
However, there now seems to be another change in public taste on TV, which you are an expert on and will see immediately what I’m talking about. With the success of “House,” there is now arising an interest in ‘character’ as well as fast-moving plot. The central figure now is the ‘anti-hero’ and this plays well on the show “Person of Interest” where the character played by Dana Delaney is an anti-hero–rough, abrasive, obnoxious, rude–and sooo entertaining. And in the “The Mentalist,” where Simon Baker plays a character who keeps getting on the nerves of all the other characters. To compare any of these new types of shows to the best of the past TV shows is apples to oranges, it is illogical. They are new creations and need to be judged on the basis of the “STORY INTENTIONS.” If they fulfill their own intentions and succeed with the audience, they are good, no matter what other shows in the past did. So with RBH’s later work, in my opinion.
Gerald, I enjoy your writing. You make a lot of good points. However, I believe it doesn’t matter how Parker wrote his books, all he had to do was to be true to the artist within him and write what came to him. Shakespeare was widely criticized during his career for “never blotting a line.” What came to him, he wrote down, and if there were doodle-dums wrong with it, he didn’t care. His later romances were widely regarded for three centuries as being badly inferior to his great tragedies. Only in the 20th century were the romances re-evaluated and seen as great works for what they set out to do.
Anyway, I enjoy you and Lee and your arguments. But I move on with the times, don’t look back, and like what is happening now, no matter what. I love a good western, but I see that the times have advanced. The ethos is what matters. Writers who address the needs of the ethos will sell a lot of books. Parker moved with it, and succeeded. His later works need to be seen against the ethos, not against anything he wrote before.
As moderator of a Parker discussion list, I’ve seen all degrees of fan. Some prefer early Parker. Others defend everything he ever wrote. Still others, unfortunately, have misread and shouted down any criticism of Parker as overly negative and disrespectful. With someone who had as long a career as Parker, there’s room for all degrees of fan.
Again, it’s great that you’ve enjoyed almost all of Parker’s work. Your description of him writing what came to him and not caring about the details is a pleasant fantasy. Editors actually expect most writers to be more meticulous than Parker became, and since editors are part of the approval process before most books can go on sale, writers have to work with them. By his later career, Parker was in a position where anything he submitted would probably sell. He could afford to write what came to him and not care about the details anymore because he was in this position. That doesn’t make his later process the right approach. Plainly, if new writers used his later process, their work would be rejected.
You mention how Parker seemed to adapt to the different style of books that have sold in the course of his career. Any adaptation, though, was by chance. Later in his career, Parker said he didn’t read any fiction except Elmore Leonard. Leonard is another writer whose style hasn’t changed in years but whose popularity rocketed with the movie GET SHORTY. Parker couldn’t have consciously adapted with the times because, as times changed, he read less and less fiction.
In your original comment, you said you wanted to know why the experience of reading Parker was so good for you. You wanted to know what Parker was doing to make it so. I’ve laid out Parker’s process for you, and in your latest comment you say it doesn’t matter how Parker wrote his books. If it truly doesn’t matter to you, if you don’t want to look deeply into how he wrote, I leave you to your enjoyment.
Actually, I liked POTSHOT, but not for any of the reasons you say. I liked it because it was his heavy-handed, but enjoyable attempt to do Spenser as a western…sort of a warm-up for his Virgil Cole books. But I think your thesis regarding his later work is way off base. The problem with his very short, more recent books had nothing to do with him attempting to adapt his style or storytelling to a changing marketplace (since he paid no attention to it, by his own admission) and, IMHO, everything to do with lazy writing & plotting.
Okay guys, Lee and Gerald, you are entitled to your opinions, and I’ll respect that.
I totally agree with Lee’s assessment of Parker’s writing. And I’m a HUGE Parker fan. He, more than any other writer, is responsible for inspiring me to pursue my career as a professional writer.
Dan talks about Parker’s later books being more plot-driven, but I couldn’t disagree more. They were almost plot-less, with Spenser basically intuiting who the bad guy was and then dealing with him. The end. Spenser was never wrong — there was never even the possibility that he was wrong in any of his assessments. No suspense, no plot twists.
Lee summed it up best — “lazy writing & plotting.” And it breaks my heart to say that, because I have such admiration for Parker. But his later books were such a disappointment I didn’t even read the last couple.
Guys, we have a problem. (I thought I was done but Jay’s comment got me going again.) Later Parker is good, and here’s my case.
You all have three main criticisms against RBP: (1) the writing is lazy; (2) the plotting is lazy; and (3) the later works are ‘disappointments’ compared to earlier works. These are the big three criticisms, right?
As regards the third criticism, I don’t know what you are comparing “Cold Service” to, or “Hundred-Dollar Baby” to, but I find them in no way a ‘disappointment.’ Yes, they are written in a spare style, plot-driven, dialogue-heavy, but that’s what satisfies public taste now. If you are not satisfied, then are you sure you have moved with public taste, or are your sensibilities stuck, maybe, somewhere in the past? (Well, you know what I mean.)
As regards the first and second criticisms, that Parker is ‘lazy,’ I do not believe that what he said about himself and his writing, not rewriting, etc, is of any importance. I only look at the writing. And I do not see ‘laziness’ at all. In fact, I don’t know what you guys are talking about when you say ‘Parker is lazy.’
I did an analysis of Chapter 56, of the Jesse Stone novel, “High Profile.” I count seven story-beats, each made up of three sub-beats. To me, this is a creation that flows out of writing genius. It is pared-down to the essence, and where is there any ‘laziness’? Or lack of plot? It’s plot-driven writing at its best, IMHO.
Chapter 56: Jesse needs to know why Lutz might have done it.
1. Having coffee.
Suit plays the tape.
They got it.
2. Rosa asks if they’ll play it for Lutz.
Plus they have their photos.
3. Jesse will try to use Lorrie to shake Lutz loose.
And Lutz to shake Lorrie loose.
But does Jesse think they did it?
4. She’s been lying.
Lutz hasn’t told him anything.
So there are grounds for suspicion.
5. And there is motive.
Weeks was going to divorce Lorrie.
Most of the money would go to Carey and unborn child.
6. But there’s a problem, says Jesse.
Lorrie couldn’t do it alone.
But why would Lutz help her?
And then there is Hendricks.
He may be in.
Jesse can’t rule him out.
7. Rosa gives Jesse her card.
If they need her again, she’ll help out.
She thinks Jesse is a pretty good interviewer.
Lorrie looks like a trophy wife, she says.
But appearances can be deceiving.
But not forever, says Jesse.
As a model for a chapter, does it get any better?
Can it be any tighter? And tight writing cannot, by definition, be lazy writing, right?
Can the scene be any more artfully crafted? Or more logically plotted?
Parker may have been a victim of his own earlier success with some readers, I understand that. But I am not one of those readers. What I see is that he perfected a format, a format that exquisitely followed the FORM of a story, and he followed it faithfully. That’s a great achievement, to me. I think you worked out a format for your Monk books, too, Lee. And “Mr. Monk on the Road” is the most heartfelt of your stories for me. It’s not laziness to perfect a format, I would argue, and Parker does it with his later works. And to follow what works is genius.
Hey, I’m a voice crying in the wilderness!
As I’ve said in previous comments, each reader’s experience and opinion of Parker is different, i.e. subjective.
I’ve pursued writing for twenty-five years now and have learned that stretching yourself, challenging your own creativity, is the best way to develop as a writer.
To perfect a format and use it repeatedly is an achievement, but for writers who care to continually challenge themselves and grow, that achievement is not as impressive as Parker’s move to a younger, more flawed, 3rd-person character in Jesse Stone.
Similarly, conscientious writers value the opportunities to plan books, to build the overarching stories I mentioned, and to revise/polish work. They consider it part of the writing process, so Parker’s not planning or revising is “lazy” to them. Importantly, while writers see signs of Parker’s process in the text, most readers miss or dismiss them.
Again, my view of Parker stems from my experience as a writer and editor. I don’t expect most readers to see him the same way. Most readers don’t want to be writers after all. No one intends to spoil your enjoyment of Parker, Dan. We’ve simply pointed out that Parker’s later process is not very admirable or recommendable to writers.
I don’t think you can analyze the strengths or weaknesses of a book by looking at ONE chapter. I don’t tend to analyze the stuff I read, anyway. After I’ve read a book (or even WHILE I’m reading it) my analysis consists of “Am I enjoying this?” and that’s pretty much it.
And these are all just opinions, anyway. If you enjoy the later Parker books, that’s great! I genuinely wish I could say the same. But you can’t really prove to us that they’re good any more than we can prove to you that they’re bad. You can trot out reasons why you think they’re good all day long — none of it will change the fact that I disagree.