RARA-AVIS: Parker as an Influence (was "Recent finds on opposite sides of the continent")

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 13 Apr 2008

Mario wrote:

> You really think he's that influential?


> I know he sells a lot of
> books, and there was a successful television series, but I rarely find
> anybody who confesses to being a fan.

Well, here ya go. I confess. I'm a fan. I still am.

Long-running series may zig and zag, quality-wise, but I'll continue reading 'em until the end. As long as the occasional zigs are balanced by the zags. And I believe Parker has managed to do that. After a certain point, these series become one long, long novel, each novel simply another chapter in an on-going saga.

Pronzini's Nameless is another series which has had its own zigs and zags, but I'll keep reading him too. The 87th Precinct was another, and the Archer series by Macdonald. After a while, it's the overall series that matters, not the individual books. Familiarity may breed contempt, particularly among those who view any sort of popularity with disdain and intellectual suspicion, but it also breeds familiarity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

A visit with Spenser or Nameless or Carella or Archer is like a visit with an old friend -- one we may not always like or agree with, but truly care about.

> Maybe I am not talking to the
> right people. I do see lots of copies of his books, so somebody's
> reading him.

I run a mystery reading group at the local Barn O' Novels and EVERYONE reads Spenser. Or have said they would, after we did one of his books. It was the best received book we've done in over three years, and the only author we've done twice (not at my urging or suggestion, either). Maybe "hard-boiled" fans sneer at him, but the average joe in the streets "gets" him.

> What is the attraction in the Spenser series, in your opinion? I mean,
> sociologically, who does it a appeal to?

I'm no sociologist, but I'm willing to bet it's people who aren't obsessed with reading the "right" books.

I mean, Parker writes enjoyable yarns whose breezy style should never be taken as a sign that the books are simple. They offer food for thought on several levels, frequently posing moral and ethical dilemmas that other, much more acclaimed (ie: "hipper") crime writers take twice as many pages to cover.

Although the general consensus is that the books are no longer as strong as they once were, Parker still beats almost everyone in the game as far as sheer readability goes, which is certainly one reason his books regularly hit the bestseller lists. Like Mark said once,
"the man got flow." His clean, spare prose style and breezy, almost tagless dialogue gallops right along, making them "easy reads." In my unceasing efforts to get the readers of my reading group to read more P.I. and hard-boiled stuff, I use Chandler and Parker as gateway drugs.

And Dave wrote:

> I think Kevin's probably refering more to the impact the Spenser
> series might've had on other PI works--more tough PIs showing their
> sensitive side, for example, or having Hawk-type sidekicks.
> Personally I'd have to think Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder has had
> the most influence on the genre--causing a small flood of PIs who are
> recovering alcoholics/drug abusers. Of course, this might be hitting
> Kevin and myself more because of the submissions we've both probably
> have gotten over the years for our respective web-zines.

Yeah, there's a whole sub-species that misses the point (much as they did with Chandler's wisecracks or Ellroy's racism and homophobia). Like Dave, I've probably seen far too many ham-handed tales of (and probably by) maladjusted, sociopathic nihilistic twerps tossed over the transom. The authors seem to believe mere unpleasantness makes a story worth reading. Any relationship between these piles of disjointed scenes and an actual narrative is purely coincidental. Or just plain dumb luck. There's no point, no reason -- just plain ugliness for its own sake.

These aren't two-fisted tales; they're definitely one-fisted.

Which is why I'm glad we don't accept hard copy manuscripts. I wouldn't want to touch those pages.

Scudder's alcoholism isn't -- and never was -- what made him hard- boiled, but we've had a steady stream of winos, junkies, dipsomaniacs, manic depressives, nitwits, etc. ever since. Of course, Bill Crane and Curt Cannon were well-known alkies who preceded Scudder, but Block definitely took it up another notch, and Crumley turned it up to eleven or twelve, before he turned it into a cartoon (though I hear his latest is a return to form).

And while I'm as big a Block fan as I am a Parker fan, I don't think that Block's had as big an influence on the genre or the world at large as Parker. Block certainly does get more respect and acclaim, though. Parker's the guy it's okay to trash.

And Mark Sullivan wrote:

> And although I got tired of and stopped reading him, the first few
> Spenser books are good reads. And he pioneered the psycho sidekick
> used
> by Schutz, Mosley, Lehane, and so many others.

He also popularized the use of strong female and black characters who were given much stronger roles in the series. Say what you will about what he may be saying about women and blacks, but before Spenser few women and non-whites played such dominant roles in white P.I. novels.

Again there were precedents (Brock Callahan's girlfriend comes to mind, for example, and I think the Hardman series predated Spenser by a few years) but Parker's inclusiveness was pretty heady stuff for the early seventies; particularly in the almost totally white-on-white lone wolf macho world of P.I. fiction. And the success of that series may -- just may have helped pave the way for the acceptance of the work of everyone from Mosley to Grafton and beyond that followed a few years later.

Of course, other writers in the genre were also pushing the envelope by then, notably Block and Pronzini, and certainly Huggins and Cannell , whose Rockford, like Spenser, had a huge supporting cast of characters that were there for far more than mere comic relief.

Also worthy of note is that Susan isn't just a woman or a supporting character, but that, as Spenser's girlfriend, she's there as his equal; not a sketched-in ditz or a mere pawn to be kidnapped every few books (Hello, Mannix's Peggy). Susan is his emotional and intellectual equal; by turns headstrong, opinionated, perplexing, humourous, annoying and smug and as tough -- in her own way -- as Spenser. And it's worth noting that although plenty of people seem to hate Susan, few call her unbelievable.

It seems like a natural progression to me: from a strong, fully developed female character holding her own in a male P.I. series to a strong, fully developed female character holding her own as a P.I. in her own series.

It's worth noting that the 70s/early 80s female private eye boom
(Muller, Grafton, Paretsky, Cody, Lippman, Dunant, etc.) occurred after Susan had become a regular. So you could blame Parker for that too....

Then there's location, location, location. There have always been novels set in locations beyond the LA/New York axis, but Spenser's living, breathing Boston arguably paved the way for the acceptance of such vividly rendered settings as Pelecanos' D.C., Lippman's Baltimore, Burke's Louisiana, Bruen's Galaway, Estleman and Kantner's Detroit or Roberts' Cleveland.

And of course, popularity itself is a big factor in what's deemed influential (if a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, etc.), although popularity alone isn't enough. There has to be something original, something new or fresh, that inspires subsequent creators, for someone to be deemed "influential." And the number of people who have cited Parker as an influence or inspiration -- or simply the reason there was a market for their own work -- is very long indeed.

Nope, I can't think of any other writer of the last thirty or so years to have come close to having as pervasive an effect on crime fiction.

But of course I'm willing to hear other suggestions.

Maybe Leonard?


Harriet Klausner?


Kevin Burton Smith www.thrillingdetective.com

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