Reviewing Robert Parker, Pulp Fiction of the 1970s

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The three books that I read by Robert B. Parker were Double Play (2004), Shrink Wrap (2002) and Melancholy Baby (2004). Based on these I wondered how the author became as popular as he is. When talking about a character, he would describe what he or she was wearing. That and a lot of dialog, which consumed a lot of pages, was the meat of the books. No physical descriptions, no sense of setting and no real character development gave me the impression that Parker saw his writing for what it was, a job.

But then I read The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), the first of forty books in the Spenser private detective series. Yes, he described characters by what they wore, but he also gives you a sense of Boston in the 1970s. In addition, you feel more connected to his characters than in his later works.

Parker (1932-1910) is a transitional writer, the first generation past the pulp fiction created by magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. His characters are more sensitive, more literary and less chauvinistic. Thus, Spenser is a mix of the hard-drinking, cold-hearted “dick” and the read-between-the-lines observer of humanity. This was the model for the modern fictional detective.

For those of you, who don’t know, pulp fiction was popular because it was a cheap way to reach the literate masses. Before World War II and television you could find all the escapism you’d ever want via short stories in a ten-cent magazine. Many early writers, like Dashiell Hammett and Ray Bradbury, made two cents a word writing for these magazines. Stories included all types from detective fiction to fantasy and from science fiction to horror. From these genres we get the beginnings of most of the modern day classifications in fiction.

In all fairness, the books I read by Parker were late in his career. The Godwulf Manuscript seems fresher by comparison. I can see where Robert Crais gets his wisecracking Elvis Cole and how Harlan Coben splits the Spenser personality between the softer Mryon Bolitar and the hard-nosed Winn. John Dunning’s Cliff Janeway is another example, where a tough cop becomes a bookstore owner and collector. Although Parker’s writing may seem dated (leg work vs. today’s high tech problem solving) it is fast paced, and Spenser’s literary quotations and his shoot-from-the-hip dialog are amusing.

Thus, I will probably be reading more Parker books. I still want to give the Jesse Stone series a try. For those who are nostalgic baby boomers, it is a bit of a kick to go back in time and remember what life was like before computers and cell phones. For those, who consider themselves mystery connoisseurs, it is only right to read a man who contributed so much to the genre.

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