Not long after Bob Parker’s untimely death, Otto Penzler invited me to contribute to a Festschrift in his honor. (That’s a German word, and it means a sort of tribute album in the form of critical essays.) It was not a request I felt I could deny, and I wrote a piece; the book, In Pursuit of Spenser, was recently published by Ben Bella Books, and boasts contributions by a distinguished array of crime writers, including one by Parker himself.
Here’s what I wrote:
Interviewer: Why do you think your work is so popular?
Robert B. Parker: I dunno. I think people just like the way it sounds.
That’s a wonderfully quotable exchange, and I wish I could be sure I was quoting it correctly. I wasn’t there when these words were spoken. It was passed on to me second- or third-hand, but what I heard rang a bell, and I can still hear the echo.
Because I believe he got it right. Why is everything Bob Parker wrote so popular? I think we just like the way it sounds.
Ruth Cavin was a great editor who left us too soon, although not before she’d lived ninety-two years. She stressed the great importance of the writer’s voice. It was, Ruth said, as unique as a thumbprint, and the chief factor in the success or failure of a piece of writing. And it was inherent in the writer. You couldn’t learn it. You couldn’t do a hell of a lot to develop it, or refine it. What you had to do was find it, which was task enough.
And what you found might or might not be worth the effort.
We think of voice more in connection with the performing arts. An actor has a voice, and it amounts to something rather more than pitch and register and tone; it’s what makes us listen intently or puts us to sleep.
“I could listen to him read the phone book,” we say with admiration.
A musician has a voice. The touch of a particular set of fingers on the keys of a piano, the notes that come out of the bell of a horn—they are individual, and sometimes unmistakably so. You might, if you practice enough, and if you’re talented to begin with, play the same sounds Louis Armstrong played. But they won’t sound the same.
A singer has a voice. One can almost say that a singer is a voice, that anything learned—phrasing, breath control—merely allow the true voice to be heard.
A story, if I may. An aspiring singer went to audition for a great vocal coach. While the last notes died out, the coach sat for a few moments in silence. Then he strode to the window and threw it open, motioning to the singer to join him.
“Listen,” he said. “Do you hear the crow?”
“Caw caw caw. You hear him?”
“The crow,” the old man said, “thinks his song is beautiful.”
But writing is silent, isn’t it? It’s an act performed in silence, and its creations are appreciated in a similar silence. (The medium of the audiobook is an exception, in that one reads it not with one’s eyes but with one’s ears, and there are accordingly two voices involved, those of the writer and the narrator.)
“As silent as a painted ship / Upon a painted ocean,” wrote Coleridge, in his own unmistakable voice. We do in fact hear the voice of the writer, all the silence notwithstanding. It falls upon the inner ear. We hear it.
Voice. Isn’t it just another word for style?
Different people will define style differently. But I’m writing this, so I get to use my definition. Which goes like this:
Style is that façade a writer erects to conceal his voice.
If Bob Parker wrote a phone book, people would read it.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate. But his voice did have magical properties. On two separate occasions I picked a book of his off a library shelf, just intending to read a few pages and get an idea of what he was up to in this latest effort.
Fat chance. A few pages? A couple of paragraphs and he had me, and both times I read the book all the way through to the end.
(This would have been less likely had the books had more heft to them, but they were short. There wasn’t all that much in the way of incident, nor were all that many words used to tell the tale. In an effort to keep the novels from looking as short as they were, Parker’s publishers typically used larger type and wider margins. And they leaded out the text, so that there was often enough space between the lines of a Spenser novel to contain another whole book. The net effect of this typographic enhancement was to make the books even easier to read—as if that were necessary.)
From the opening lines of The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser’s first-person voice was a delight to that inner ear. Spenser would become more his own man over time, and less a Back Bay Philip Marlowe, but that’s to be expected in a series of any length; the character undergoes a process of self-realization. But Spenser was Spenser from the jump, and his voice didn’t change all that much.
And what makes us want to hear it? What makes us listen, even when that mellifluous voice is telling us things we aren’t all that eager to hear, even when the story’s too thin and the premise too frail and Spenser’s task insufficiently challenging?
One ought to be able to take that auctorial voice apart and explain why it does what it does. And maybe someone can do this, but not I. All I can do is say that I think the man got it right:
We like the way it sounds.
I’ve had occasion to think about Bob Parker’s irresistible voice lately, upon the announcement that two writers have been approved by Parker’s estate to continue his two most popular series. Ace Atkins will write new books about Spenser, starting next month with Lullaby, while Michael Brandman’s Jesse Stone novel, Killing the Blues, came out last fall.
I was surprised when I learned this, but decided on reflection that I had no reason to be. Writers have been taking up the lance of a fallen colleague for a century or more. In today’s publishing climate, beset by its own equivalent of global warming, death means never having to say you’re done writing. The market dominance of brand–name authors, the glut of books by living authors with acknowledged or unacknowledged “collaborators” or out-and-out ghostwriters, and the pastiche/homage of writers producing prequels and sequels to classic works, all combine to make a continuation of Parker’s work an appealing proposition to all concerned.
Though perhaps not quite all. I’m not sure it’s such a great deal for the reader.
First, though, there’s the question of what Parker himself would think of it. Is he likely to be spinning in his grave at the very idea?
I didn’t know the man anywhere near well enough to venture a guess. Ego could tug a writer in either direction; he might be reluctant to see his characters follow him to the grave, or he might be loathe to see others putting words into their mouths.
But any objection from this particular writer would seem to stand on shaky ground. Parker completed Poodle Springs, a Philip Marlowe novel that Raymond Chandler left unfinished at his death; later, he wrote a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep, with the felicitous title Perchance to Dream. The man’s motives could not have been higher, as he admired Chandler hugely, wrote his doctoral dissertation about him, and quite clearly drew Spenser more from Marlowe than any other source.
And I suppose the books are all right, although one is never in doubt for a moment that another hand than Chandler’s is at work here. (In Perchance, Parker includes flashback passages from The Big Sleep, set off typographically so you’ll know they’re Chandler’s. This was remarkably daring on his part, I always thought, and not necessarily the best idea he ever had.)
Spinning in his grave? No, probably not.
There are, we should note, some reasons to engage a new author to take over a series. And not just the most obvious one (“We can sell some books! We can make some money!”).
I remember questioning the decision to bring out new Nero Wolfe titles after Rex Stout’s death. Some years previously, I’d written two mysteries in which the narrator, one Chip Harrison, plays Archie to a road company Nero Wolfe named Leo Haig. John McAleer, Rex Stout’s biographer, told me that Stout had indeed been aware of the books, and, like Queen Victoria, was not amused. If Stout bristled at pastiche, how would he feel about downright usurpation of his characters? I figured he could only hate the idea, and I wondered at his family’s acquiescence to the proposition.
Then a publisher friend pointed out that it takes a supply of new books to keep the old titles in print. Sales of the Wolfe books had dwindled since their author’s death; without new works by a fresh hand, the publisher was inclined to let them go out of print. But if another writer in the person of Robert Goldsborough were to step in, the original books would not only remain in print but would be completely repackaged, with various outside writers commissioned to provide introductions.
All of this sounds itself like a repackaging of We can sell some books! We can make some money! and there may well be a self-serving element here. But isn’t it safe to presume the author would prefer his own books to remain in print? Wouldn’t he want to increase their sales?
Sometimes posthumous sequels work. Sometimes they don’t.
And opinions differ. One online reviewer gives high marks to Parker’s Poodle Springs; a comment follows, decrying the book as a tragedy and saying the publisher should have issued Chandler’s four chapters and let it go at that.
I must have read half a dozen of the Oz books when I was a boy, and would have read more if I’d had the chance. While I didn’t notice the difference, I remember my mother thought the later books by Ruth Plumly Thompson weren’t up to the standard set by L. Frank Baum. (Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, and the series continues to this day; the most recent entry, licensed by the Baum family, is Trouble Under Oz, by Sherwood Smith.)
Series continue after the original author’s death for the same reason that they become popular in the first place; a reader, having had a pleasant experience, wants to repeat it, wants to renew his acquaintance with a character or characters whose company he’s enjoyed. If the author who provided that initial experience is on hand, so much the better. If not, well, too bad; as long as the characters are present, doing what they do, does it really matter who’s telling us about it?
It doesn’t seem to have mattered much to the young readers who wanted to go back to Oz. Because that’s indeed what they wanted, to re-enter that magical realm, and they didn’t much care—or notice—who it was that unlocked the door for them. Frank Baum may have created that world, but other writers seemed capable of accessing it, or some acceptable variant thereof. And that’s what the books were about, not Baum’s perceptions, not his voice.
On the other hand, without departing from the world of juvenile fantasy fiction, try to imagine a later writer taking up the mantle of Lewis Carroll and turning out a third Alice book. It wouldn’t astonish me to learn that the attempt has been made, because there’s nothing that someone somewhere is not fool enough to try, but aren’t you happy you don’t have to read it?
I was an impassioned fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, and read them all more than once. I read the first of Robert Goldsborough’s sequels, and found it troubling. Stout’s auctorial voice, and the voice he gave to narrator Archie Goodwin, was more than distinctive; it was to my mind unique, and it had everything to do with the books’ success. One wanted to hear that voice, even as one wanted to spend more time in the rooms of that magical brownstone house, and in the presence of those perfectly realized characters.
Goldsborough came to his task more as a fan than an author. He wrote the first book, Murder in E Minor, for the private pleasure of his mother, who longed to read more about her favorite characters; it was his own first novel, and wasn’t published until 1986, eight years after he’d written it. By 1994 he’d published six more, and that was that. A decade later he began writing books of his own.
As I said, I found Murder in E Minor unsettling. It almost felt as though Stout had written it, and the narrator almost sounded like Archie. There was one stunning glitch, in that Archie smoked a cigarette or two in the book’s course, and that was about as startling as if Lillian Jackson Braun’s Qwilleran were to whip out his pen knife and geld a cat. A few thousand readers called this to the author’s attention, and in the books that followed we heard no more of Archie and tobacco.
But the rest, as I said, was almost right. And, naturally enough, Goldsborough improved as he went on. He became a better writer, as one is apt to do with practice, and he also became better at sounding like Stout, and at putting Wolfean words into the mouths of his characters.
It’s my impression that members of the Wolfe Pack, that enduring sodality of ardent West 35th Street Irregulars, have varying degrees of enthusiasm for the post-mortem Wolfe books. They did bestow the Nero award on the first book, and surely read the others. The consensus seems to be that they’re glad to have these seven further adventures, but do not for a moment confuse them with the genuine article.
I read the first, as I’ve said, and one or two others. For all I know, they may have been more suspenseful and more strongly plotted than the originals, but I’d never read Rex Stout for plot or suspense. I read, like everybody else, for the pleasure of the writing and the charm of the characters, and Robert Goldsborough was not entirely lacking in those areas. He worked very hard at sounding like Rex Stout, and at letting his narrator sound and act like Archie Goodwin.
Rex Stout, of course, never worked at it. He didn’t have to.
And there, I submit, is the problem. Ace Atkins is a fine writer, and at least as gifted in plot construction as Parker himself. (Here’s a Spenser plot: 1. A client brings Spenser a problem. 2. Spenser studies the situation and figures it out. 3. Spenser addresses the problem and brings it to a successful conclusion. There’s a lot of snappy dialogue and some of the best physical action anyone ever wrote, but those three sentences pretty much cover it in terms of plot.)
I don’t know what Ace Atkins has going for him in the way of mimetic ability, but I’m willing to believe he’ll do a fine job of sounding like Parker. I gather he’s a Parker fan even as Parker was a Chandler fan, and Goldsborough a Rex Stout fan We can assume he understands Spenser and Hawk and Susan, and will know what words to put in their mouths, and how they’ll react to the situations in which he places them.
I can’t make all of the same assumptions about Michael Brandman, which whose writing I’m not familiar. As I understand it, his background is TV, and he worked closely with Parker on the adaptations of the Jesse Stone stories for that medium. One might infer that his strengths lie in plot and story construction, but there’s no reason he might not be able to provide a reasonable facsimile of the Parker voice.
Here’s the thing: No matter how good a job either of these fellows do, no matter how much skill and sensitivity they bring to the table, and no matter how much thought and effort they apply, all they can attempt to provide is an imitation of a genuine original.
I guess there’s a place for that sort of thing. Look at all the Elvis impersonators, all the tribute bands.
You know, that’s enough already. I set out to write about Bob Parker’s style and got into a riff on the sequels.
I alluded to this a few paragraphs back, but it can stand elaboration: Nobody ever wrote a better fight scene than Robert B. Parker. Whether the violence is hand-to-hand or includes weapons, whether it’s one-on-one or there’s a whole crowd on hand, whether it happened the day before yesterday or back in the Old West, the man always got it down brilliantly. He did so with great economy, and spared us the gore and the sadism, but you were right there while it went down, and you could see just what happened and how it happened, and, well, it was breathtaking. I’d read through one of his scenes a couple of times before going on, not because I was going to school (although I probably was) but because I didn’t want to let go of the experience.
There’s another observation Parker made about his work that has stayed with me ever since I first came upon it. He pointed out that he was not writing realism, that he was in fact writing romance.
Let me capitalize that. He was writing Romance. Not, God help us, in the Harlequin/Solitaire sense, but in the Malory *Morte d’Arthur sense. And that’s why it’s perfectly acceptable that Spenser remain the same age forever, that his shining armor remain untarnished, and that, in his affair with Susan, forever wilt he love and she be fair.
It was Parker’s special province to write Romance in a realistic style. And that works quite wonderfully, because it tricks us into suspending disbelief to a remarkable extent. We don’t strain at gnats, but neither do we balk at swallowing the occasional camel.
Consider the sequence in Early Autumn, when Spenser takes Paul Giacomin off to make a man out of him. The physical routine he puts the kid through would flat-out kill him, and Spenser doesn’t even give him days off to recover. Parker would have to know as much; he was a weightlifter hinself, if perhaps a less diligent one than his hero.
But he writes it this way anyway, because this is Romance, and he makes it work. A realist would teach the kid a couple of basic exercises and start him off with two or three lights sets a day of each, and progress would be a gradual thing. That might make just as good reading, but it would be a different sort of book from the one Parker wanted to write.
And one thing he knew was that everything worked out for the best if he wrote the book he wanted to write.
I had my troubles with Early Autumn. I’d spent enough time lifting heavy metal objects, and enough days afterward with sore muscles, to find the departure from plausibility hard to take. I’ve had my problems with Spenser and Stone and Virgil Cole, all of whom may be described as true-blue, uxorious, or pussy-whipped, as you prefer. (The three terms are hardly mutually exclusive.)
So? I was never the Ideal Reader for Parker’s work, and God knows he got along fine without me. But I did read almost all of the books, and not because of the stories he chose to tell or the characters who peopled them.
I just kind of liked the way they sounded.
And I liked and respected the man. Let’s not leave that out.
I don’t think our paths crossed more than six or eight times, and we never came close to sitting down for a heart-to-heart. There were a couple of dinners where we were both on the dais, a couple of book biz events that threw us together.
Once, I think at a Left Coast Crime conference in Scottsdale, Bob was doing a one-man act in a large room that was predictably packed. He said he wasn’t comfortable preparing talks, but would do a Q&A—and, not surprisingly, turned out to be very good at it.
Somebody asked him which of his own books was his favorite. “Gee, I don’t know,” he said. “Once they’re done I never look at them.” I was all the way in the rear, but I guess he’d spotted me. “How about you, Larry?” he called out. “Do you ever read your own work?”
“I read nothing else,” I said.
Lord, that was satisfying. You have to love a guy who floats one belt-high across the plate like that, and does so on the one day in twenty when you’re quick enough to get your bat on it.
I was a bad choice to write this piece, and would have passed if I felt I could. But, if my feelings for the work are mixed, those for the man are not. I was in fact honored to be invited to this particular clambake, and simply could not say no.
Once again, here’s a link to the festschrift, In Pursuit of Spenser. I’m not being overly modest when I report that you’ll probably find the other contributions superior to mine.