The Mystery of Robert B. Parker

This Thanksgiving, I had the pleasure of joining Ms. Annie Rosenberg for the holiday meal.  She reminded me that a few years ago, when we first re-connected after 14 years, she had made a book recommendation to me, and I had written her a tongue-in-cheek review.  With her permission, I am sharing it below:

Dear Annie,

On the northwest side of San Francisco, tucked between the Chinese restaurants and little cafes on Clement and 6th Avenue, sits Green Apple Bookstore.  The establishment is everything a used bookstore should be: narrow passageways, tall wooden shelves, a labyrinth of nooks and crannies, three meandering stories tall.  Ashley and I love to read, and this is our favorite bookstore: we’ve been here more often than the grocery store.

Usually, I follow the same path through the aisles each time, browsing the literature section, fiction, new fiction, and even science fiction.  Living real life every day, I don’t feel compelled to read about it, too, much preferring a made-up reality.  The circuitous path I follow usually takes me about an hour to fully browse through, agonizing over how many books to purchase, and which.  For Ashley, the trip is much more straightforward: she walks straight back to the fantasy section, and there she remains, sometimes for hours.

This particular Thursday, however, was not for browsing.  We had chores to do, packing to begin.  However, I was compelled by a suggestion- or rather a demand- by an old friend (you’re not old, Annie, just of older acquaintance than most people I know) to find a book by Robert Parker, something about a “Spenser.”  My browsing and glancing and back-cover reading over the years has familiarized me with most popular authors, but this was a name I did not recognize.  When I didn’t find his name in any of my usual sections, I took drastic action: I asked the store clerk where to find his books.

The clerk directed me, not to fiction, not to science fiction, not to literature, nor non-fiction, not even to fantasy, though the proper section was tucked away behind fantasy, so I passed by Ashley as I walked to it: she gave me a funny look, a look that says “this isn’t your area of the store…”

Mystery.  I was seeking a book in the “mystery” department.

I am not a fan of mystery, which is to say I’m not a fan of the idea of mystery, since I have not, to my knowledge, ever read a mystery novel.  I associate the genre with older, barely literate readers, and airports, for some reason.  Mystery, in my mind, is just one step above romance, and not a very large step, either.  This was going to be difficult: Spenser and I were not off to a good start.

I selected “Now and Then” from among the dozen-or-so Parker offerings.  Flipping to a random page, I noted the names “Spenser” and “Hawk,” remembering a suggestion (though not a demand) that the book I choose incorporate Hawk in some way.  Five dollars lighter, I left the store with Ashley, my new book, and enough skepticism to fuel a marital conversation.

For three days, the book sat on my night stand, uncracked, staring at me with a mix of obligation and dread.  “Do I really have to read this book?” I wondered.  “Could I just tell Annie I read it, and move on to Ayn Rand instead?”  Many options were considered, nothing was off the table, except of course for the book.

Finally, on the fourth day after its purchase, I cracked the cover and decided to give Parker twenty minutes in which to impress me.  I confess to feeling no small amount of pride in myself for taking this course of action.  “Yes,” I thought (or maybe I said it aloud…I’ll have to ask Ashley), “I am willing to try new things.”

Now, 20 minutes for most books only gets you through the introduction and perhaps the first few pages.  For “Now and Then,” the combination of large print, small pages, and a large amount of one-word-per-line dialogue translates into roughly forty pages per twenty minutes interval.  The pages were flying by so fast I could feel a draft on my face.

After you mentioned that Parker wrote a paper on the literary form of the detective novel, I was on the lookout for scenes a faire and conspicuous generic elements.  I was not disappointed.  The book opens with a stereotypical meeting between PI and prospective client, complete with sharp, witty dialogue and enough clues about Spenser’s character to render my ignorance of his past twenty-or-so adventures relatively moot.  I never once sensed that I was being slighted for not knowing his background, or for the fact that this was my first Spenser novel.

The plot moved along as quickly as the pages.  Within two dozen pages, the “case” had been solved, and within another twenty two murders had occurred, one each for the client and subject of Spenser’s investigation.  Per the genre, the detective work uncovered clues about not just the case, but about the detective, and it was the intertwining plot-line of his own relationship with that of his nemesis-du-jour that made the book memorable.  My twenty-minutes trial period for Parker lasted an hour and forty minutes, and put me within reach of the end.  I finished it the next morning before work.

My only disappointment with this novel (mysteries are considered novels, right?  I’m very new at this genre…) was the treatment, or rather non-treatment, of Hawk and the other “assistant” characters.  Hawk was presented as a stereotype rather than a round character.  The depiction of the Mexican (though not authentic Mexican, as repeatedly noted) bordered on impropriety through the excessive use of stereotyping.  The book was not intellectually challenging: it was just a good read, plain and simple, a clever story told with talent and conciseness, unlike this review of it.

It was somewhat jarring to transition out of Parker’s world into that of Ayn Rand, since I have been meaning to read “the Fountainhead” for many months, but overall my first experience with mystery was satisfying and enjoyable.  I have become a fan of Robert Parker, and intend to read all of his Spenser books.  It is still a bit disconcerting to be reading books classed as “mystery,” but I think I’ll adjust.

Thanks for the book recommendation.  It was a good one.

All the best,

~Andrew

Published in: on December 5, 2012 at 12:02 am  Leave a Comment