Thursday, February 4, 2010

I picked up the phone and called Quirk

That was the last line of the last Spenser book. I just finished it last night. I'd been saving the last few chapters for a couple of weeks since Robert B. Parker died on January 18th.

The first Spenser book I read was in 1981. Looking for Rachel Wallace. My brother Peter recommended it to me. It was the third in the Spenser series. I liked it enough to go back and read the first two, The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child. Moving forward, I read every one since then. And all the Jesse Stone ones, and the Sunny Randall ones. And a few that had none of the well-known characters, such as Wilderness, Love and Glory, and Poodle Springs, the unfinished Raymond Chandler book that Parker completed.

My daughter Caitlin was born in 1985. I had read about five Spenser books by then and was also working on the entire Travis McGee series by John D. McDonald. All the McDonald books had a color in the title: The Deep Blue Goodbye, A Tan and Sandy Silence, The Dreadful Lemon Sky, etc. The one I was reading in the hospital while I waited all day for Caitlin to be born was Nightmare in Pink. I knew it would be girl.

But back to Parker. Kathy and I decided that a kid should have a dog, so we got a full-grown Old English Sheepdog from a shelter in Holden, MA. Named him Spenser, spelled like the detective, which was spelled like the English poet.

Caitlin's first word was "Spenser." Okay, it was more like "Spa-spa," but she wasn't saying "Daddy." She was talking about the dog.

Every year since 1981 I've had a Spenser book to read on the beach. Usually at Smuggler's Beach on Cape Cod. I learned a number of things from Spenser books. In one, he's sitting in his office on Kneeland Street (this was the first of three offices he had). It's nighttime, the window is open, and he hears a car with a trick horn blowing "shave and a haircut...two bits." I had never known the name for dum-dum-da-DUM-dum...dum-DUM . Now I did. In another book he's up in the Catskills trying to rescue Susan and somebody says, "Yippie cayocayay!" It's the only time I've seen it written out. When I was a kid my father used to say, "Up and Adam" to get us boys up. At least that's what I thought he was saying. Many years later, while reading a Spenser book, I came across this line: "It was 5 o'clock and I was already up and at 'em, but the 'em I was up and at were still asleep." Up and at them. Now I get it.

The books weren't perfect. A reviewer once recommended that Parker give us "more Hawk, less Susan." I agree. He spent way too much time drooling over how wonderful Susan is. In the last ten years or so, after he and Susan got back together, she gets a PhD in Psychology at Harvard. From then on, Spenser mentions that Susan has a Harvard PhD several times in every book. Impressive, yes, but alright already. He referred to having sex as "bopping" too frequently. I found this annoying when multiple people in the same book would use the expression. He relied heavily on the same police contacts, as though the Boston Police Department consisted of only two guys that he knew, Quirk and Belson. He has Hawk doing the fake black dialect thing too much. He adopted a kid in an early book, Paul Giacomin. Paul comes up a few times in subsequent books, but it's pretty sparse. He spends too much time fawning over Pearl the Wonder Dog (they actually go through two Pearls). Pearl is fed food right from the table and gets to crawl into bed with them. A few plots were preposterous, like the one where he goes to Arizona to save a small town from outlaws by shooting them all.

But they're fun reads. Short chapters. Good beach reads, good airplane reads. Good characters. Hawk, Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus, Junior and Ty Bop, Chollo, Henry Cimoli, State Police Homicide Commander Healy, Martin Quirk, Frank Belson. He ate at real restaurants and named them. Lockober's, The Bristol Lounge, Rocco, The Ritz Bar, Blue Ginger. He knew that a Browning was a good piece to hide in the small of your back but was also effective. He knew how to cook. He knew how to box. He ran along the Comm Ave mall. He enjoyed beer, like Amstel or Black and Tan. He liked Scotch, especially Dewar's. Also Maker's Mark. He liked Dunkin' Donuts coffee. And their cinammon donuts. He named real towns, unless something bad was happening there. He referred to my hometown of Wellesley as Pemberton. Lowell was Proctor. Portsmouth, NH was Port City. Lynnfield was Smithfield. Tufts University was Taft. BC might also have been Taft.
He's funny and self-effacing. "I decided to use my warm but convincing smile on her. I didn't work. That surprised me, because my warm but convincing smile almost always works."

He was a Red Sox fan. He has a 2004 World Series Champion cap. In one book Spenser is wearing a Utica Blue Sox cap as a disguise. Parker himself was old enough to remember the Boston Braves. On the back of several books he's wearing a Boston Braves cap while Pearl strains against the leash. (In case you don't know, the Braves are a National League team that played in Boston from 1871-1953, when they got sick of being outdrawn by the Red Sox and decided to blow town and head to Milwaukee. 13 years later they moved again, this time to Atlanta where they still play.)

So now I have no more Spenser books to read. There is one more Jesse Stone novel. He's the Police Chief of Paradise, Massachusetts, which is remarkably like Marblehead. I'll read it when it's released. But I'll miss Spenser.

1 comment:

  1. Well done. Enjoyed reading this tribute to both the author and his characters. (I hope someday you get a chance to be as kind to mine.)
    :) RB