RBP, RIP

By: Joshua Glenn
January 20, 2010

Crime writer Robert B. Parker is dead. HiLobrow.com contributor Sarah Weinman, who writes “Dark Passages,” a monthly online mystery & suspense column for the Los Angeles Times, and “The Criminalist”, a monthly online column for the Barnes & Noble Review, has linked to dozens of tributes. Today, in a Los Angeles Times appreciation, she tactfully explains away the lameness of Parker’s numerous post-1985 novels, and points out how influential his Spenser series was when it came to dragging “the private eye into a new era, reframed by women’s liberation and 1960s-era activism.”

True enough. And yes, the crime novel — and the character of the private eye — were in need of updating, by the 1970s. But was Parker’s influence on crime fiction ultimately a benign one? I’m not sure Weinman is convinced that it was. When she blogged, after hearing about Parker’s death, that “I’m really not sure how to process this,” I detect the confusion that we admirers of lowbrow feel whenever confronted with ersatz lowbrow. Let me see if I can distinguish between the two…

I enjoyed the first half-dozen Spenser novels, when I read them in the 1980s, but it was always a schizophrenic enjoyment. It was fun spotting the nods to Parker’s literary heroes, Hammett and Chandler, whom I worshiped. But I had no use for Parker’s protagonist’s externalized id and super-ego: Spenser’s thuggish sidekick Hawk, and his therapist girlfriend Susan. Hardboiled writers like Hammett, McCoy, Household, and Greene — as I’ve argued in a post on the Hardboiled Generation — created male and female characters (like those in Howard Hawks’ movies of the 1940s and late ’30s) whose grim sprezzatura carried them safely through fateful situations. This is the genius of the lowbrow disposition; recall Walter Benjamin’s line, in “The Storyteller,” about what the lowbrow fairy tale teaches us: “to meet the forces of the mythical world with cunning and high spirits.” Spenser’s sidekick is his ice-cold cunning; his girlfriend is his red-hot high spirits. Spenser himself is lukewarm. He doesn’t kick against the pricks; he adjusts.

Thinking about Parker’s first novels today, I’m strongly tempted to conclude that they — like Clint Eastwood’s Philo Beddoe movies, which came out at the same time as the fifth and sixth Spenser novels, and which likewise costar a supposedly hardboiled protagonist’s externalized id, the sexed-up and violent orangutan Clyde — are low middlebrow. That is, they’re a sentimental tribute to/ripoff of lowbrow entertainment; and they’re mass-produced for an audience primarily interested in neither ice-cold thrills nor red-hot entertainment, but lukewarm distraction.

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READ MORE essays by Joshua Glenn, originally published in: THE BAFFLER | BOSTON GLOBE IDEAS | BRAINIAC | CABINET | FEED | HERMENAUT | HILOBROW | HILOBROW: GENERATIONS | HILOBROW: RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION | HILOBROW: SHOCKING BLOCKING | THE IDLER | IO9 | N+1 | NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW | SEMIONAUT | SLATE

Joshua Glenn’s books include UNBORED: THE ESSENTIAL FIELD GUIDE TO SERIOUS FUN (with Elizabeth Foy Larsen); and SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS: 100 EXTRAORDINARY STORIES ABOUT ORDINARY THINGS (with Rob Walker).

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What do you think?

  1. Oh this is fascinating! I’m really glad you picked up on the id/superego thing, because I don’t think that weird Freudian aspect of the early RBP books in particular gets discussed enough.

    Also keep in mind that the middlebrow-ness stems a lot from Parker’s much more settled, professor-like life – how many PhDs, especially American ones, wrote crime fiction before he did?

    But my early confusion, aside from the initial numbness of knowing another writer you expect to be there year after year is now no more, stems a lot from leftover feelings on a piece I never wrote while RBP was still alive, which was that his later books were going to dilute the influence and legacy of his earlier books. I still think he stands on the precipice of forgotten vs. remembered by the mass market (like John D MacDonald and Ed McBain) but for crime writers who came of age in the 80s and 90s, he will always live on.

  2. Those early Parker Spenser novels came out pretty much at the same time as the first half-dozen George V. Higgins novels. Also Boston-based, though very different style and focus. Did you read those, too, when you were reading Parker? What did you think?

  3. Sarah, yes — it’s clear that Parker’s interest in lowbrow fiction is a highbrow’s (not a hilobrow’s) interest. It’s sentimental — which prevents it from being really thrilling or funny or angry. Entertaining, though, sure. Spenser’s fondness for Rolling Rock — the ultimate middlebrow beer of that era — is very telling.

    Steve, Higgins, like Parker, wrote a lot of boring books. But as Sarah pointed out in a Hilobrow.com item, Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is truly notable for its style, its almost Altman-esque collage of muttered fragments.

    http://tinyurl.com/yc7ppl3

    PS: Though I’m a lifelong Bostonian, I find it very difficult to get worked up (pro or con) about movies and novels set in Boston. I think it’s because, as an actual Bostonian, i.e., not from outside Boston, my allegiance is not to the city nor even to a neighborhood, but only to a certain micro-neighborhood. And to that micro-neighborhood only during a certain period from, say, 1974-83. When I was a schoolchild and teenager. Nobody has written that novel yet. Except Jonathan Lethem, but he set it in Brooklyn!

  4. my poor mother. she adores spenser, and delights in every middlebrow-bostonian detail in the books… on the other hand, i do like the thought of her getting some lukewarm distraction – she’s earned it.

  5. Well, the trouble with a style like GVH’s is that it hardens so quickly into mannerism, right? And people must’ve told him he should lighten up, which probably didn’t help. Love Friends of Eddie C, though, and a couple other early ones. I guess I ask about the place stuff because, reading in England in the ’70s when I’d never been to the US, I was also travelling vicariously through these books . . .

  6. Another thought: Parker’s BU doctoral thesis, The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage, and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, is to the Spenser novels what Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces is to Star Wars. It’s a roadmap of a “monomyth” (Campbell’s term), which functions as a template permitting the industrial-style production of sequential low-middlebrow commodities.

  7. Joshua, tracked you down from an article you wrote for the Globe Staff, 12/18/2003., titled Looking for Mr. Boston. I had been trying to find out if my Old Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bar-Tender’s Guide was, indeed, a first edition,and by your information,it seems that it is. I know you’ve gone on to other things, but I can’t seem to get any other information regarding this great little bar book. We found it in my father-in-laws things after he died. It’s very art deco and I think now is the time to sell it. Can you direct me to a viable site that might be interested? No one mentions the beginning part of the book that states: Sir,-May we now present to you Old Mr. Boston in permanent form. I’d appreciate any help that you may give. Sandy

  8. Sandy, if you’re in Boston why don’t you bring it to Tom Nealon at Pazzo Books in West Roxbury? Tom writes for HiLobrow and is a good friend and honest merchant. He can let you know what he thinks your book might be worth and maybe he’d be willing to sell it for you on commission…

    http://www.pazzobooks.com/

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