RARA-AVIS: Re: Robert Parker as influence

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 18 Apr 2008

Mario wrote:
> --- In rara-avis-l@yahoogroups.com, Kevin Burton Smith <kvnsmith@...>
> wrote:
> ead.
> >
> > But it's not what YOU'D read that counts so much as what other
> people
> > would read -- and are reading.
> >
> Well, yes and no. If I'm compiling statistics of what people read,
> then everything counts. But if I'm giving my opinion, it' what I read
> that counts -- and what I consider good.

Sure, but what we were (or at least I was) discussing was not opinions of quality or sales figures, but Parker's influence on the genre.

> > Yep, your disdain for the work of "that lot", particularly Grafton
> and
> > Paretsky, has been duly and regularly noted.
> >
> Huh? I never expressed disdain for Grafton or Paretsky.

Well, you referred to Grafton and Paretsky's work as recently as a few weeks ago as "a much lower level of literature than is the norm." One man's praise is another man's disdain, I guess.

> > The changes brought to the genre in the seventies and eighties have
> > endured, and what's popular in the hard-boiled P.I. genre has
> already
> > changed.
> >
> But what were the changes of the seventies and eighties, as a whole?
> That would be an interesting topic of discussion, I think.

Which is what I've been trying to discuss the last few days.

> I am a little confused here. I spoke of an explosion (lots of material
> being published) but you are now implying that there was a revolution
> in the PI genre, i.e., great innovations.

You're inferring more than I'm implying. I don't think the P.I. novel in the seventies and eighties went through so much of a grand revolution as an significant evolution. You can't tell me you think there's no difference between a P.I. novel written in 2008 and one in 1958 or 68, can you? Many of the tropes in the P.I. novel that we now take for granted (alternative locations, the psycho sidekick, stronger female and non-white characters, private eyes that wearing running shoes, fer cryin' out loud, etc.) first crystalized in Parker's first few books. They weren't so much "great innovations" as logical progressions of what was happening both in the literature and the world at large. But Parker got them all together first.

Without requoting my entire post, suffice it to say that I feel there's an openness now about what's possible in the P.I. novel that barely existed pre-Spenser.

And as for your "explosion of material," don't you think Parker's spectacular success also played a part in that?

As Max Allan Collins, surely part of that explosion, put it in a January interview, "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."

> But what did he do that was new?

My point was that Parker laid the groundwork for -- or at least paved the way for the acceptance of -- much of what came after him in the seventies or eighties. Including Paretsky, Grafton, Mosley, etc. Just as Chandler, in the thirties and forties, didn't so much innovate as refine and polish. Parker (and Chandler, Macdonald and Hammett before him, to name the most obvious examples) didn't create something radically new so much as assemble disparate trends, weave them all together in one convenient, entertaining package, giving them their own personal stamp, and then put a handle on it for readers (and subsequent writers) to get a grip on.

Sure, there were black or female private eyes or psycho sidekicks before Spenser, just as there were lone wolf or wisecracking private eyes with a code of honour before Marlowe. Or compassionate private eyes before Archer.

> To me, he is a Chandler imitator, mainly.

Certainly the Chandler influence is there -- and Parker would be the first to admit it -- but there's far more going on in the Spenser series than mere pastiche. To dismiss Parker as a mere imitator is to give the books short shrift indeed -- or to have missed much of what was going on in them. Much of the subject matter in the Spenser novels would be almost inconceivable in a Chandler novel, everything from the frank and open sexuality (someone once cracked that it took Marlowe seven novels just to get laid) to the wide-ranging discussions of race and gender issues. Heck, I can't even recall any children playing any sort of central role in Chandler's books. If Parker's goal was to slavishly imitate Chandler, he failed. But I don't think he was even trying. For one thing, his prose style, those short clipped sentences, is much closer to Hammett than Chandler.

But no, he's not imitating Hammett either.

Kevin Burton Smith www.thrillingdetective.com

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