Last week, P.K. Page passed away in Victoria after a long and multifaceted life spent traveling the globe, receiving endless accolades, and making a great living for a poet, though perhaps just an average one for anyone else. A few days later, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, former English professor turned famous detective writer Robert B. Parker died in mid-sentence at his writing desk, the same writing desk he had occupied for six hours a day since the 1970s, wealthy beyond all of his early aspirations.
That two of my favourite authors could pass away in such quick succession is no oddity. There are a lot of authors out there, and though I’ve missed the great majority of them, I try to keep up as much as possible. But, looking back on the last seven days, I wonder if I am missing an opportunity to consider a certain spectrum in my reading life (and, by extension, my writing life). P.K. Page meant about as much to me as she did to the average young Canadian poet, so I don’t feel the need to contextualize that fandom any more than I have. But Parker, the fresher wound, needs some background.
In much the same way that other young people may have snuck the odd page of their parents’ Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Harlequins, my first exposure to the corrupting joys of literature came from Parker’s hard-drinking contemporary anti-hero named Spenser. Parker’s Spenser was a successor to the Hammet and Chandler protagonists, but supported by a greater wit and a certain winking subversion of the form’s masculine prototypes. He took his nom de guerre from the poet, and many of the early Spenser novels were named after lines from classic poetry (The Widening Gyre, Ceremony, A Catskill Eagle, Mortal Stakes…) and accompanied by well-chosen epigraphs from the great masters. As the first Spenser novel appeared in 1973, well before the dawn of Generation X’s new practitioners of “knowing noir”, his nod to literary history beyond the barroom and back alleys was truly gutsy.
This is because, after a middle-class upbringing and time in Korea, Parker had attended Boston University, receiving his PhD in 1971 with a thesis titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”. Its major concerns were Chandler, Hammet, and Ross MacDonald. Parker started teaching the next summer, while beginning to plan the next step in the pantheon of hard-boiled detective novels. His The Godwulf Manuscript came out in 1973 and with that, Spenser was born. The best thing anyone’s ever said about Parker’s one-name wonder is this selection from Newgate Callendar’s original NY Times review of The Godwulf Manuscript: “a tough, wise-cracking, unafraid, lonely, unexpectedly literate type—(he) is in many respects the very exemplar of the species.” I expect Callendar meant the species of fictional private eyes but I, at eleven years old, reading the back copy under a flashlight, didn’t know that.
Spenser became a hit and many adventures followed. He made friends (with Hawk, a 6’5, well-read, gun-toting flirtation with the best and worst among white American conceptions of the black male) grew a little older (though not much older, maybe 15 years or so in the 36 between first and final novels). Spenser’s life changes were Parker’s as well. The author and his creation experienced the same kind of troubles with their partners, had health scares at the same time, and seemed to age into the same workaday blur with regards to the episodic parade of their respective forms of employment, book after book and case after case. When both of Parker’s sons came out of the closet, the Spenser novels became among the first examples of queer-positive hardboiled American fiction. Spenser was a Boston liberal, but one with a libertarian bent. He was as disdainful of the form of institutional mindlessness found in the academy as the one found in the police station. While Parker had arrived at his novels after escaping the former, Spenser was presented as a refugee from the latter. A TV show appeared in the 1980s, starring the late Robert Ulrich. It’s not bad.
In later years, Parker expanded his stable, adding Jesse Stone (a small town police chief with an alcohol problem) and Sunny Randall (an experiment with mixed results—Parker writing from the point of view of a woman). The Stone stories are often shown as TV movies on ABC starring Tom Selleck, and are the best example of Parker’s work onscreen. They were also filmed in and around my old stomping grounds on the Nova Scotian South Shore. There’s a scene in Stone Cold where you can see my childhood house.
As often happens, the last few Parker novels were lesser cousins to his crackling early work. The dialogue got stuck sometime around 1995, and never progressed or kept up with the times. The accumulated richness and depth of the characters allowed the wit and vivacity to come through in their shared moments, but any introduction of a new (specifically younger) voice sounded lame and half-formed. Now cranking out two or three new books a year, Parker lost his interest in the unusual, or even the well-earned. Spenser became conflicted by default, and bitter by design. His longtime romantic partner, the psychologist Susan Silverman, became a sort of exposition-machine, bussed in every few chapters to explain to Spenser (and the reader) what drove the various criminals and victims to act the way they did. What’s worse, Parker’s publishers realized that they didn’t need to focus on quality to make the cheap buck this long-retired student of detective fiction guaranteed them. There are at least twenty-five typos in the first edition of Parker’s Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006). At some point, it became too easy for all involved to not care.
If you’ve sat through that short biography without knowing anything about Parker or his work, thanks. Here are the five best Spenser novels, you can buy any of them at any second hand bookstore: The Widening Gyre, Ceremony, Chance, Small Vices, and Valediction. I bring Parker up in part for the ritual of public hero-grieving, but also because his career represents a path I’ve often thought about, and explains the root causes of many of its joys and sorrows. Robert Parker, at age 26 or so, was on his way to a much quieter life, one spent teaching and writing under-read things like
poems academic essays. In essence, he was primed for a life of focus, and ended up with one of extrapolation. He went from being detective fiction’s archivist to its ambassador, and ended his life working happily on the production of mediocre things. What does it mean, I wonder?
Nothing in P.K. Page’s life history suggests much doubt or reticence with regard to the artist’s life, its disappointments and worries. She was pure bohemian in 1950, pure creator in 1980, and pure inspiration in 2010. Though she wrote widely, from romantic poetry to children’s books, one doesn’t detect any hint of a drift in her creative personality. She loved many things, but her focus on poetry didn’t seem to ebb in light of her extrapoetic output. She loved many things, but didn’t become anything else, at least not without meaning to do it.
Parker’s forty-year odyssey from reinvigorating saviour of thoughtful noir to a bloated institution suggests a different life path for a writer. It would be too easy to look at these two lives and say he went for the money and lost his soul. Page lived fairly well (though rarely off her own books) and I imagine had as difficult a life as any other intelligent person. Likewise, Parker followed what he loved, that he could do that and also write bestsellers is doubly lucky. However, the trickster-figure of hardboiled fiction that appeared in the early 70s had to still be alive inside the old man who sat down to his desk yesterday to scribble out the 4,000th witty repartee session between Hawk and Spenser. I wonder if he felt the slide, if he registered the slow bleed of iconoclasm from his stories. Can we, as writers, ever feel our essentialness slip? What do you do when you recognize this happening, surrounded by agents and publicists and unopened mail?
I read P.K. Page when I am at my best as a reader, I need to be there in order to tune into her dexterity. However, I read Parker whenever I’m in a slump, when the stack of half-finished (L)iterature proves to be too much. And I’ll miss him more. I’m sorry, but we shared the same uncertainties. You never forget those who taught you to fear.