Sunday, January 16, 2005

Robert B. Parker -- Why bother?

A recent post on Lee Child's message board put forth an interesting question regarding Robert B. Parker: My basic question about Parker is why bother?

The reason to bother with Parker is because he wrote some of the finest PI novels extant and he was a key figure in the transition from the classic detective novels of Hammett, Chandler & Macdonald to the modern stories of Connelly, Crais, Mosley et al.

Parker was crucial in helping to update the PI archetype to include a more modernistic approach and outlook, especially with regards to the genre’s treatment of sociological themes, as well as a greater emphasis on realism.

The best Spenser novels (e.g., Looking for Rachel Wallace, Early Autumn, Mortal Stakes, Promised Land, etc.) are as good as anything in the detective genre and are certainly deserving of reading and discussing.

Now, one could reasonably put forth the question: why bother with new Parker novels? That would be a fair point, and my answer would be: most of them probably aren't worth a great deal of bother. Parker's work is still entertaining and the man would be hard-pressed to write something that wasn't eminently readable. But it’s true that his books don’t have the vitality, resonance, or importance that they once did.

Parker will turn 73 this year and he doesn't seem to have much interest in being the writer he once was. Of course, considering the sales he racks up these days, I can't really blame him. (He's a much more popular writer today than when he was a better one.) Most of us would be lucky to be as comfortable and successful in our careers when we reach his age.

Of course, Parker still has the tools of a fine storyteller, should he choose to use them, and even now he can turn out a book that will surprise you. Witness last year’s Double Play, which although I didn’t get around to reading it, got some very good notices, and certainly represented a fine effort at telling a new story.

As Max Allan Collins once said: “Disliking [someone’s] writing is one thing -- ignoring history is another. I am not a huge Robert B. Parker fan, but he is important, and a lot of us in the 1980s and 90s were able to sell private eye novels because Bob Parker led the way.”