JIM DOHERTY wrote:
> 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.
Thanks for posting that, Jim. It prompted me to dig out an interview I did with Parker circa 1990, when I was young and snotty and put to him some of the things people here often complain about with regard to his writing. His answers are worth a look, my apologies for the snottiness
(and the dig at cops is obviously not aimed at all cops, Jim, just, you know, the cartoon right wing ones!).
The mythic American private eye refuses to lie down and die. After a
heyday in the 1940s and '50s, personified by Humprey Bogart as
Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a slow decline through the sixties and
seventies seemed to have consigned the P.I to a half life in ever
dodgier TV series, preparatory to joining the Western gunfighter in the
retirement home for American heroes. Yet the last five years have seen
more private eye novels appear than at any time since the '50s; perhaps
more than at any time at all. The changes have been rung - women PIs,
gay PIs. black PIS, a dwarf PI, a one-legged PI... - it's getting to the
point where, as a real-life San Francisco PI once said to me, the next
one along will probably be a dolphin. But the core remains: the idea of
the law's lone wolf.
Like most apparently sudden developments the Private Eye revival has its
roots some way back. The biggest name in American PI fiction at the
moment is Robert.B. Parker and he started out in the early seventies.
From the first, Parker placed himself firmly in the Chandler tradition, he called his PI Spenser (Marlowe/Spenser geddit?), and imbued him with the Chandler credo 'down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean' and so forth. So succesfully has Parker trod in the master's footsteps that fifteen or so Spenser novels down the line the Chandler estate decided that he would be the ideal man to complete the novel Chandler was working on when he died, /The Poodle Springs Mystery./
It's the delivery of this hybrid publishing event that brought Parker to
the deserted Knightsbridge hotel bar where I met him recently. He's a
big slightly florid-faced man with a weightlifters neck, amiable enough
in a practised kind of way, and when he mentions that he's 'sort of
friendly' with Burt Reynolds, who is 'a pretty good guy', it sort of
figures. It figures because that's what the Spenser novels are all
about, how to be a macho nice guy. What PArker is attempting is to take
a slightly cruder version of Marlowe, a two-fisted, red-blooded type -
with, of course, a sensitive streak - and move him around contemporary
Boston, make him deal with the politics of feminism, race, and so on, as
well as doing damage to the bad guys and saving the pretty lady.
Parker is ready enough to acknowledge the Chandler legacy: "His
influence was enormous. In my first few books I was - kind way to put it
- greatly influenced: - unkind way to put it - copying. The degree to which my first books are not just like Chandler is the degree to which they were not entirely successful. I was setting out to do Philip Marlowe with another name. For reasons of psychology rather than literary evolution, once you start to publish, you begin to find your own voice. I read Chandler when I was fourteen, his influence on me as a writer and an imaginative figure cannot be overestimated."
I asked him then if he didn't feel that the idea of the private eye as
white knight was implausible enough in Chandler's day let alone now:
"The private eye is a fictional creation. The movie /Shane/ was advertised with the catch line 'there never was a man like Shane' and that's the point. There never was - Wyatt Earp wasn't like the guy in the movies. The PI is a fictional character and it's a fictional form. I know people who are private detectives, many of whom have never carried a gun, and those who do have often never used it. They're not like Marlowe. Much fiction requires that suspension of belief. I know a lot of cops too and the majority of them have never fired their guns either, except on the range, but Starsky and Hutch fired theirs like eighty-five times a day. But cops tend to like my books, they say 'the guys are right'.
Unfortunately it is only too easy to see why cops would like Parker's
books. because these are ultimately deeply conservative books, for all
the trappings of liberalism, all the talk of feminism and racism. Parker
may say that he doesn't trust the conventional leftist pieties and that
is fair enough, but in the end Spenser's feminism is summed up by his
being a gourmet chef (i.e. he doesn't just cook, he cooks really goddamn
well) as well as being so red-blooded that even the recurrent lesbian
character in the novels, Rachel Wallace, fancies him. The didactic heart
of the books though lies in Spenser's relationship with his sidekick,
Hawk, a supertuff black guy with a shaven head who is also, surprise,
something of a gourmet. This passage from /The Judas Goat/ neatly
encapsulates the relationship (Spenser has just asked Hawk how he thinks
about being black):
/'I used to think about it when I had to. I don't have to no more. Now I
ain't nigger any more than you honkie. Now I drink the wine and screw
the broads and take the money and nobody shoves me. Now I just play all
the time. And the games I play nobody can play as good.' He drank some
more champagne, his movements clean and sure and delicate. He was eating
with no shirt on and the overhead light made the planes of muscle cast
fluid and intricate highlights on the black skin. He put the champagne
glass back on the table, cut another slice of salmon and stopped with
the portion half-way to his mouth. He looked at me again and his face
opened into a brilliant, oddly mirthless grin. ''Cept maybe you, babe,'
Hawk endlessly expresses his autonomy and his distance from any
stereotype of blackness but when it comes down to it he's a man of
brutal action (when he isn't charming women), who continually bows to
Spenser's lead. Hawk's real role is to make Spenser feel good about
feeling good. I asked Parker how important he felt his social agenda was
in his work: "One of the reasons writers say so many idiotic things in
public is that people ask them how they do what they do and they don't
in fact know and they talk a lot of bullshit instead. On one level all
I'm trying to do is write this story. On the other hand I do feel that
the problem in America is race and that entered into my decision to make
Hawk a continuing character and I am in favour of people being treated
as though they are worthy, regardless of gender, and I don't have any
problems with who makes the money or who changes the baby and all that,
and I think it would probably be good if no one had any problems with
that. So there is a kind of oblique social criticism in my books and I'm
not unaware of that. But when I set out to write a book I'm not setting
out to straighten out the problems of feminism or deal with the issues
of heterosexuality, I'm making a story. It's more that when I'm making a
story, thoughts occur to me."
Perhaps the extent to which Parker's avowed liberalism ends up
conservative is to do with the generation thing. Parker is a product of
the fifties, of a literary generation for whom Hemingway is still the
big palooka and maybe this is why Parker's work on /The Poodle Springs
Mystery/ is far more successful than on a recent Spenser potboiler like
/Playmates/, a rather low-key book about the exploitation of US college sports stars. The Chandler assignment was a tricky one, though, as the surviving fragment is far from vintage, as Parker readily agrees: "The first four chapters are not good. Chandler was in his decline - as evidenced by the fact that he died before chapter five! He was drinking heavily. His wife's death beset him, as she did when alive - didn't stop him from cheating on her, though. He attempted to shoot himself after she died and missed. His last years were a mess. Still, bad Chandler is better than good many people."
So how did Parker feel about Marlowe's less savoury period
characterisiics, his snobbery and occasional racism? "I wasn't terribly
pleased with that but I didn't feel it was my business to clean him up.
My goal was to get inside Marlowe. Marlowe was a bit of a racist, certainly had class attitudes, and had assumptions about sex that are no longer so widely shared. Though, in fairness to Chandler, in the late 1950s I would have been more inclined to agree with them. The year of his death for instance I was working, my wife was home with babies. There you are."
The real problem with Parker's work, finally, is not in the use of a
fictional convention, the private eye, but in the relation between
author and character. Spenser is just too much of a wish fulfilment
figure. Parker himself gives every appearnace of being a tough guy with
a heart of gold, his other publications include both /Sports Illustrated
Weight Training/ and a book called /Three Weeks In Spring/, written with
his wife Joan, which is an account of her battle with cancer. So his
projection, Spenser, is an insanely tough guy with a rough diamond
heart, and ultimately neither believable nor sympathetic. Unfortunately
too Spenser is pretty much the benchmark for contemporary PIs, in the
main a parade of tough'n'sensitive (and/or one-legged) Marlowe clones
dreamed up by bored English professors from Colorado. There are
exceptions to the the rule (James Crumley, Jonathan Valin, Sara
Paretsky, Sue Grafton) but what is a shame is that the model should
almost always be Chandler when Dashiell Hammett's Sam Spade or
Continental Op offer far leaner, less self-congratulatory models -
pragmatic pros, not cartoon white knights.
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