My first literary love was Spenser. No, not the English poet. Robert B. Parker’s indefatigable Boston based P.I. who, since 1973’s The Godwulf Manuscript, has been wittily cleaning up Boston’s streets one asshole at a time. Parker, as you may know, died on January 18th, 2010 at 77, and I knew it was just a matter of time until I saw a book with his name at the top and another writer’s name much, much smaller at the bottom. It’s happened.
The book is Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues by Michael Brandman and will feature not Spenser, but small town police chief Jesse Stone, another of Parker’s, and in this fan’s estimation, lesser creations. I’ve seen this happening more and more, best selling authors releasing books featuring their worlds, their characters, but written by other people. I guess I just didn’t care as much because I didn’t like the writers to begin with. Kind of like I didn’t care when A-Rod got busted juicing, but when they got Manny, it hurt. This one hit home. This is Robert B. Parker.
I guess the only distinction I would make between Parker and other authors who have perpetuated this odd little literary scheme, James Patterson and Tom Clancy come to mind, is that Parker, like Ian Fleming and Robert Ludlum and Lawrence Sanders, is dead. And so far as I know, despite maintaining three separate characters and writing upwards of three to four new novels a year, Parker never knowingly let someone else write his characters so that he could profit while he was still drawing breath (excluding, of course, television and films, mediums that Parker’s characters had mixed relationships with). What breaks my heart a little bit, though, is that he must have known they were going to. Parker’s estate was behind Michael Brandman taking over Jesse Stone and are also behind Ace Atkins taking over Spenser. The first new Spenser will appear in the spring of 2012.
Robert B. Parker did more to change the face of the hard boiled detective novel than anyone since Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. He contributed 39 Spensser novels to the literary well. Now, some were shit and it’s hard to argue Parker wasn’t phoning it in toward the end. But some weren’t. Some were righteously awesome. Page turners in the most honorable sense of the cliche. Books that made time non-existent. Many of them I’ve read several times. Let me go way out and just say this: at their best, Parker’s Spenser books were the most fun I’ve ever had reading. They occupy a pure and, dare I say, sacrosanct place in my life. They’ve gotten under my skin. Shaped the way I think about manhood. And I still think when I write dialogue it comes out sounding like Spenser and Hawk on a stake out. I just wonder how necessary this all is. 39 novels! And that’s just Spenser. This guy wrote his ass off. He’s dead. We’ll miss him and read his books to remember how beautiful he was. It’s over. That’s the way it should be.
Or should it?
Further research reveals that Parker’s widow and lifelong parter, Joan, has given the continuations her blessings. As has Parker’s agent of over forty years. Now, these two people obviously loved Parker a great deal, knew him intimately, would never want to see his legacy tarnished or his characters mocked. Would probably not move forward with this if they thought he was opposed. And it’s just crude to think they’re only in it for the money. Is there some nobility here that I’m just not seeing? What gives?
Why is this so complicated?
I look around the culture and feel like a hypocrite for caring so much. I’ve been watching James Bond since I was a kid and never batted an eye at all the other pens involved that didn’t belong to Ian Fleming. Why is it different with Spenser?
I guess it’s different because I idolized and loved Robert B. Parker, as much as you can love someone you’ve never met. For a long time, I wanted to be him. I tried to write a detective novel. Have you ever tried that? It’s so much harder than it looks. And the emotions I’ve invested in him and his characters make it more personal, just as I’m sure it has for Fleming fans and Bond purists over the years.
In an earlier post, I cited David Foster Wallace’s brilliant 2005 graduation address from Kenyon. In it, Wallace talks about our “default settings.” One of them is the idea that we are all programmed to believe that WE are the center of the universe. That the things we care about and look at and go through are the realest things happening anywhere on the planet. That they’re more authentic because they’re what WE care about. Until we force ourselves to take a step back. Or, in my case while writing this post, do a little more research. Damn, that guy was good.
I don’t know whether or not I’ll read a Spenser book written by Ace Atkins. Maybe. I wonder: Is new Spenser by him better than no new Spenser at all?
Hell, I don’t know.