RARA-AVIS: A Memoir of a Friendship

From: JIM DOHERTY (jimdohertyjr@yahoo.com)
Date: 03 Mar 2010

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    Although Parker month is now over, February is a short month, so I'm going to count 3 Mar as "31 Feb" for this posting.

    In the most recent issue of REFLECTIONS IN A PRIVATE EYE, PWA's newsletter, Jeremiah Healy ("The OTHER Boston Private Eye Writer"), wrote an article describing the long friendship he enjoyed with Robert B. Parker, the man he regarded as his mentor. It was quite moving, and gave a very good picture of the kind, decent, helpful guy Parker was. With Jerry's kind permission, as well as that of our own Bob Randisi (the founder and Exec Director of PWA), I am reproducing that article below my sigline.




    by Jeremiah Healy

        The last few years have been rough in terms of losing our American giants in crime fiction. Ed McBain (formally, “Evan Hunter,” though, by birth, “Salvatore Lombino”) and Dennis Lynds (aka “Michael Collins”), Tony Hillerman and Donald E. Westlake (aka “Richard Stark”), William G. Tapply and Stuart Kaminsky.

        And now, unfortunately joining those departed giants, the one I knew best: Robert B. Parker.

        I was honored when Judy Bobalik, Editor of R.I.P.E. (strange how appropriate the first three letters of our acronym have become), asked me to write an article about Bob. And, by the way, it was always “Bob” or “Mr. Parker,” never “Robert;” nor did I ever hear him mention his middle name. However, the many obituaries published and posted since his death have detailed Bob’s life and work far more comprehensively than I can here. Accordingly, let me hew true to the sub-title of this piece, and share with you my memories of Bob.

        I first discovered his books while frantically shopping the Walden’s Books in Boston’s Center Plaza for paperbacks to read on the planes (four of them, each way) that would take my then-bride and me to the then-remote island of Bonaire, off the coast of Venezuela, for our honeymoon. I enjoyed reading the occasional mystery, but I’d never heard of “Mr. Parker.” The book of his that I picked off the shelf and opened was his first, THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT, and I can remember laughing loudly at its first page, even the first sentence. Thankfully, I was still a trial attorney, wearing a three-piece suit, and therefore I avoided jail and/or the asylum after my outburst.

        Well, I could not, as they say, put Bob’s debut down. In fact, I re-read it twice during our stay on Bonaire, trying to figure out, in a lawyerly fashion, how he managed to pull off the most entertaining story I’d experienced over the prior twenty years. A few months later, I began teaching at the New England School of Law (now, “New England Law: Boston”), and I continued as a Spenser fan through “LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE,” which really floored me. When assured I was going to receive tenure (the dream of every Irish-American male: lifetime employment, inside work, no heavy lifting), I arrogantly concluded that any New York publishing house would jump at the chance to have a(nother) sensitive, male private-eye operating out of Boston.

        Twenty-eight rejections later, I was humbled, but unbowed. Then Ruth Cavin, at the time an editor at Walker & Company, plucked my manuscript from her slushpile and offered a contract for what would become MY debut, BLUNT DARTS.

        After the novel was released, I was encouraged by Kate Mattes (of the also late, lamented, MURDER UNDER COVER bookstore in Cambridge) and Bill Tapply to speak with Bob about how the crime-writing “industry” worked. Bob graciously agreed to meet me for drinks at Grille 23, a fine Back Bay (Boston) restaurant where a reporter from a national magazine was later to interview him over dinner.

        Not surprisingly, I got there first, taking a stool next to an empty one. When Bob came through the door, I recognized him immediately from his book-cover photographs (it was 1984, so picture a burly guy with short, dark hair; matching mustache; and a decidedly NON-three-piece suit). His first words to me were, “Glad you’re already here, because you’re covering our bar tab.”

        I knew at that moment I’d met my mentor for crime-writing.

        I remember pretty much our entire conversation that night, but, given limitations of space, I’ll only summarize his comments. “Three most important things? Get an agent, get an agent, get an agent.” Then, “Your literary agent will introduce you to his or her corresponding one in Hollywood for movies and TV.” Finally, “Just don’t eclipse me, okay? I’m too old to find a real job now.”

        I recall thinking, “Eclipse me?” Please allow this “recovering” lawyer to simply hang on to your coat-tails.

        In 1985, after my second novel, THE STAKED GOAT, was accepted for publication by Larry Ashmead at (then-) Harper & Row, I asked Bob for a cover endorsement. He responded almost immediately with a terse but favorable blurb: “[Healy’s new book is] tightly written and a pleasure to read.”

        After THE STAKED GOAT was released, I found myself invited to appear at the closing banquet of the 1987 Boston Globe Book Festival. Standing at the podium on a raised dais, I was Doc Severinsen, warming up the 600-plus audience for Ed McMahon (that night played by Mary Higgins Clark), with everybody waiting for Bob as Johnny Carson. I think we were all good speakers, but moving from the dessert course to booksigning tables, Bob leaned into me and whispered, “Look, both Mary and I are New York Times bestsellers, meaning our signing lines will be way longer than yours. So, stand up for each person with a copy of your book, shake their hand, introduce yourself as ‘Hi, I’m Jerry, and thanks for coming tonight.’ Then ask how they’d like the book inscribed, and, if they say, ‘Oh, just your signature would be fine,’ you reply ‘Hey, I’d be happy to personalize it, whether to you or a relative, maybe one with a birthday on the horizon?’
     That way, Jerry, you might sell two or three books to the same person, while all the time you spend on each will make your line last longer, until it’ll be the same length as Mary’s and mine.”

        Great advice, which I took to heart then and still follow today.

        The one thing I didn’t learn that night, but rather years later from one of the festival’s organizers, was that Bob had urged the Globe to have me as the kick-off speaker, because it would be the biggest audience of my naiscent crime-fiction career, and a nice boost to my sales.

        I thought back to “Just don’t eclipse me, okay?” The man who had asked that of a virtual rookie was now acting as a phantom--and unpaid--publicist.

        During the following two decades, Bob and I, as Boston-based private-eye writers, would appear together frequently. I remember congratulating him on the Spenser series of novels being made into the television series SPENSER: FOR HIRE. He told me, “Jerry, you don’t know the half of it.” When I asked what he meant, Bob said, “I get a call from my literary agent in New York [City], asking me to come down and meet the ‘star’ projected to play the Spenser role. I said, ‘Well, who is it?’ My agent wouldn’t answer that over the phone, instead telling me a ‘fresh, face-to-face” would be better. So, I got on a plane, went to my agent’s office, and was ushered all by myself into the conference room to meet...Robert Urich? I thought, God, they’re killing me here. The kid from SWAT? DAN TANNA, slick dick of Las Vegas? Not my image of Spenser, who I’d always pictured as a younger Karl Malden, rugged but not handsome, with obvious
     bruises and scars from his prize-fighting days. So, I leave the conference room and go back to my agent, saying, ‘My contract with the production company says I get a veto on the leading man, right?’ Agent: ‘Right.’ I reply, ‘Okay, so if I ding Urich as Spenser, who does the producer have in the on-deck circle?’ Agent: ‘Erik Estrada [of “CHPS”...fame].’ I remember forcing a smile and saying, ‘I think Robert Urich is a GREAT choice.’”

        And Bob Parker was like that. He could be self-deprecatingly funny (“If I wasn’t in Korea to qualify for the G.I. Bill, I wouldn’t have become an English professor or a crime novelist: I’d be driving a bakery truck”). He also could show a tilt toward the acerbic, especially when talking with aspiring authors. Case in point: Bob, Linda Barnes, and I were on a panel at a writers’ conference, and a woman in the audience stood to ask a question: “What advice would you give to somebody trying to write her first crime novel?” The ground rules for the panel were that we three would alternate who got to answer a question first, and it was my turn to lead off. I gave a three-paragraph reply (I know, I know: You’re saying to yourself, “Where do I register my surprise?”). Linda chipped in by helpfully expanding on one of my points, and then it was Bob’s turn. He said, “First novel? Put your ass in the chair and write it.”

        Bob’s acerbic side wasn’t limited to “newbies,” either. Having received a cover endorsement from Bob for my second novel, I figured enough time had passed to make the same request for my tenth novel, RESCUE. Since Bob always admired brevity, I simply asked, “Would you read my next manuscript toward giving me a blurb?” Bob shot back, “Jerry, I’ll do one or the other, but not both.”

        I also was present for some of Bob’s greatest “star-turns.” Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in the fall of 1994 asked him to be her Keynote Speaker at Left Coast Crime during February, 1995, in Scottsdale, Arizona. He replied, “I’ll be wintering in New Mexico, so I’d be happy to appear.” During the interim months, Bob’s plans changed, and he ended up somewhere in central California. Nevertheless, he drove himself over fourteen hours to honor his obligation to Barbara, and he brought down the house during his plenary session in the auditorium. When I told Bob afterward how much I admired him for showing up, he blinked twice, cocked his head, and said, “Jerry, I promised Barbara I’d be here.”

        Just like Bob promised Britin Haller, then a co-chair of SleuthFest in South Florida, that he’d be the Guest of Honor for its 2004 incarnation. Shortly before the conference, Bob had to undergo a knee replacement, but, come the day, he descended from his high-floor suite, and walked (with both a broad smile and a noticeable limp) to the stage. I’d spoken with him the previous evening, and he was still in terrible pain from the surgery. However, Bob stood--yes, STOOD--for over an hour at the podium, giving a completely extemporaneous presentation that reminded me of his advice over drinks at the Grille 23 two decades earlier: a conversation WITH the audience, not a speech to it.

        Mostly because of my divorce in Boston and relocation to South Florida, and partly because of Bob’s ‘round-the-world celebration of his 75th birthday, I hadn’t seen him much since late 2007. But the fact that he died at his desk, writing, would, I think, have given my good friend and mentor at least some solace on his own passing.
        Rest in peace, Bob. You earned it, and many of us will never forget you.

    Jeremiah Healy www.jeremiahhealy.com


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