Robert B. Parker, an Appreciation

Robert B. Parker, best known as the author of the Spenser detective novels, died this week at the age of 77. I first started reading his books because their Boston setting soothed my homesickness for that part of the world. I kept reading them because I was enchanted by Spenser's knowledge of literature, sense of humour and code of honour. Also, the books were simply fun to read, especially the early ones. I watched the television version, Spenser: For Hire, but felt it did not do justice to the books. It did, however, give us the excellent Avery Brooks as Spenser's friend, Hawk.

I met Parker twice. Once was at a book signing at Murder Loves Company in Baltimore. It was a weekday afternoon, so the turnout was sparse, and I actually had time to speak with him. Already a best-selling author, he was generous enough to talk with me a little about writing, about Boston. I thanked him for providing my sons, also big fans, with a different model of what it means to be a man in our society. Embarrassed, he ducked his head and said, “Jes' doin' my job, ma'am.”

He did do his job. His work ethic was one of the first things that I, as a writer, learned from him. He turned out five-to-ten pages a day, five days a week, every week. I heard him say once that you couldn't help but write a whole book if you just kept piling up those five pages every day. And that was where he was found dead on Monday, at his writing desk.

He was the first author to teach me about using setting as a character in your books. I studied how he used Boston and its environs to anchor his stories. He also taught me about pacing, and lightening dark stories with a little humour. Finally he gave me a lesson in courage: late in his writing career, when anyone might have expected him to just keep pumping out more Spenser novels, he embarked on two new series, one featuring Sunny Randall and the second featuring Jesse Stone.

The other time I met him was at a reading he gave at a local bookstore. This time—an evening—the place was jammed. He read a little and talked a lot, keeping the audience laughing with his low-key humour. During the question-and-answer period, he patiently responded to the usual questions about where he got his ideas and what time of day he worked. Then, an attractive woman, maybe late thirties, got up and said that Spenser was pretty much a perfect man. She started counting off his attributes on her fingers: strong and resourceful yet not afraid to show his deep love for Susan; a man who could cook a gourmet meal, crack a joke, and handle himself in a fist-fight; etc. Just as we were starting to wonder if she actually had a question, she threw both hands in the air and cried, “Where can I find a man like Spenser?”

Parker was obviously taken aback, and paused for a moment before thanking her for her kind words about his detective and talking rather generally about not drawing characters from real life. I, however, was itching to stand up and shout, “Are you blind? He's standing right in front of you!”

Not that I thought Parker based his detective on himself. Nor was I unclear on the difference between fictional characters and real people. It just seemed obvious to me that so many of the characteristics she had been enumerating were shared by this good man standing in the front of the room, demonstrating his kindness and sense of humour in almost everything he said. He was well-known for his generosity to other writers and his devotion to his wife, Joan. He clearly knew a lot about both cooking and boxing. And I believed that in order to create Spenser, whose most outstanding characteristic for me is his code of honour, Parker must have thought long and hard about what it means to be an honourable man. He must have cared about such things in order to notice the moral code that writers like Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Raymond Chandler gave their detectives.

I didn't know Parker personally, but by all accounts he was the good man I thought he must be. I am more grateful than I can say for his books and the way they have comforted me when I was sad and reminded me of what writing can do.

World War Z—An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

Okay, yes, zombies. But they are almost beside the point. This is an amazing book, one that sank its claws into me on the first page and didn’t let up until I finished the last. As the subtitle indicates, it is a series of interviews with veterans of the war against the zombies. These interviews, which range from one to four pages, are in the person’s own words, with only an occasional question interposed, and prefaced by the location and a sentence or two of background.

Michael Chabon has much to say about the literary community turning up its collective nose at genre fiction. Me, I like science fiction. It gives us an enemy—Martians, Romulans, whatever—about whom we have no preconceived notions or political stances. It can also show us the logical consequences of current cultural trends; I'm thinking of Hal the computer in Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the social structure in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Brooks gets in a few good jabs at our current culture, mostly sad rather than satirical, such as the spread of the plague (initially called African Rabies—sound familiar?) by infected organs provided by China on order and how do they just happen to find an organ matching the most obscure set of criteria in just a few weeks? Or that the war against the zombies can only be won if all nations come together in a truly multi-national force.

The book challenges us to reconsider our philosophy. Isn't it always right to remember that your enemy is human too, with reasons and dreams and emotions? In the brilliant and subtle depiction of the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica, I'm thinking yes. Zombies? Nah. Is it ever right to sacrifice the few for the many? How about sacrificing the many so that at least a few will survive?

Brooks also gives us a sadly accurate view of the limitations of a military machine still fighting the last war, unprepared for a new form of warfare. One voice is a former Director of the U.S. Department of Strategic Resources, explaining how in World War II the Allies won by having more food, more bullets, more men than the Axis powers, but here the enemy doesn't need rest or food and has no home front to worry about. Therefore, cutting off food supplies or transport lines is meaningless; shock and awe are emotions they are not capable of feeling; and anyone they kill immediately becomes another recruit in their army. I was reminded of the fiasco when British soldiers in their bright red coats and formal ranks first encountered guerilla warfare in the American Revolution.

But what really makes this story work is the writing. What an amazing symphony of voices! Brooks does a good job of making them different from each other, no easy task. And the dramatic momentum never stops. I've been thinking a lot about drama, how to create it, how to sustain it. Here, while there is certainly plenty of action, the drama comes primarily from the intensity of emotion. The stakes are high: the future of humanity. The peril is dire: gruesome death. But no dramatic soundtrack is needed. The various narrators' emotions come out of the conflicts, not just with the zombie horde, but with themselves and with other people. There are conflicts over strategy, over questions of right and wrong, over past politics. There are conflicts even among the survivors; I loved the references to the LMOEs (last man on earth) holed up somewhere resisting the liberating army. Even more curious are the quislings, people who believe they are zombies, imitating them, attacking others. Even in big battle scenes, it is not so much what it feels like to fight with zombies—though there’s some of that—as it is what it feels like to be sent into battle with the wrong kind of ammunition, the wrong kind of armour. Sound familiar?

This book is so much better than you think it will be. Don't be surprised if it turns up on my Best of 2010 list.

Day, by A. L. Kennedy

Alfred Day is returning to Germany to work as an extra in a film set in a WWII POW camp. It hasn’t been that long since he was a POW for real, after his plane was shot down over Hamburg. Alfie, the tail gunner, survives to find himself immured in a camp where he befriends Ringer, an even sadder sack, and finds new purpose for himself in caring for his friend. At the camp he learns what it is to be truly hungry, far beyond being “clemmed” growing up, as the son of the village fishmonger.

This is not an easy book to read but it is well worth the effort. For one thing, though we stay with Alfie throughout, the point of view shifts from third person to first to second, and the other voices that we hear are often unattributed. Also, Alfie’s thoughts jump about in time, touching on various memories, returning to the film set. This is stream of consciousness with a vengeance, but redeemed by the singular and consistent voice, which is Alfie’s voice, even in third person, the voice of a barely educated country boy who doesn’t really understand himself or anyone else, but tries to do the right thing.

The subject matter is the other reason the book is hard to read. Alfie joins up as soon as he turns 16, eager to escape from the fish shop and his abusive father. A simple lad with few expectations, we feel his pride at being the first crew member chosen by his “Skipper”. In fact, the interactions among the crew—their teasing, their fights, their intense loyalty to each other—are the best things about the book. These are the first mates Alfie has had, and it is a revelation to him that he can be accepted by this group and have a valued place in it.

The style takes the reader directly into Alfie’s deepest thoughts and most secret feelings. I seem to have read a number of books recently about the difficulty of coming back after a war. For me, this one more than any other most goes to the heart of the experience. Unflinching, it wades right into the mess of memories and regrets, successes and failures. A hard book to put down, a hard book to pick up again—I found it best to just read straight through, as much as time allowed.

There are some evocative, almost lyrical, phrases that Alfie in his innocence finds to describe his world. In speaking of the way his crew lives in the moment, he says, “It would not be concerned with its past and had no business thinking of its future: its cleverness was in drinking up its minutes, second by second, and making sure to drain each one. It looked at the bods outside it who did not grasp this, looked at the sleepy civilian types—the spivs and 4Fs—and saw how close they were to being dead: how the time streamed off other people like rain and ran away without them missing it.” Later, on the film set, he feels faint and sits down, feeling “the ground rushing beneath you. Your spine tingles and you wonder if this isn’t an echo you’re reading, if so many bombs haven’t changed the earth, haven’t left it always shivering and taken away its rest.”

Kennedy creates characters I won’t soon forget, not just Alfie, but the Skipper who calls him “Boss”, Pluckrose the navigator who refers to him as “A. Day”, Ivor the owner of the shop where Alfie fetches up after the war who calls him “dear boy” when he isn’t swearing at him. Nor will I forget some of the scenes, such as the crew standing in a circle, playing catch in complete darkness, a drill the Skipper thought up. Or the way they started leaving a record playing on the turntable when they left for a mission to ensure that they’d return, one of Pluckrose’s zany ideas that somehow worked. Or Alfred, who excelled with his gun, trying to learn how to fight hand-to-hand, much to the despair of the sergeant who was teaching him.

All of Alfred’s memories are filtered through the surreal experience of pretending to live through them again. Like his fellow extras, he gets caught up in creating a real garden, a tunnel, a stove out of two tin cans, forgetting that he is just supposed to go through the motions for the camera. In this world of ours—of special effects and virtual worlds and second lives—I wonder sometimes how clear we are on the difference between pretence and really living, if we know how to drain each second. This is a remarkable book.

Best books I read in 2009

What a great year for reading I’ve had! These are the twelve best books I read in 2009. If I blogged about the book then I’ve noted the date, so please check the archive for a fuller discussion of the book.

1. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
11 May 2009
A collection of short stories about a retired math teacher living in a small town in Maine. Doesn’t sound like much, but really, it is. Writers would do well to study these stories to learn structure, pacing and character. But everyone will appreciate the unflinching understanding of small town life and those who live there.

2. Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
16 March 2009
Set in a company caught in an economic downturn and starting to lay off employees, this story captures the nuances of the life most of us spend our weeks living. The main character is the collective “we” of the cadre of workers, which shouldn’t work, but does. Funny, accurate, and unexpectedly moving.

3. Stoner, by John Williams
16 November 2009
Another surprise: a quiet and unassuming story which mesmerised me with its honest depiction of a man’s life, an ordinary man, a man of his time and place. Growing up at the end of the 19th century on a poor clay farm in Missouri, Stoner life is changed when he is sent to the university as an agriculture student where he discovers the peculiar intoxication of literature. Stoner’s life may be easily summarised, but the joy of this book is in the detail. Although a stolid and quiet man, Stoner’s thoughts and feelings run very deep indeed.

4. The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
5 October 2009
The story of an award-winning war photographer who has retired and taken up residence in an old tower on the coast of Spain where he is painting a mural depicting battles ancient and modern. Pérez-Reverte himself was a war photographer, so he speaks from a position of authority about what it’s like to be one, the degree of immersion he feels, and the degree of responsibility he has towards his subjects.

5. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
21 September 2009
At sixty-seven, Trond Sander has moved to a small cabin in the woods to create a new life, a simple life, a life alone. Since the death of his wife in a terrible car accident three years previously, Trond has felt increasingly unable to go on with his prosperous life in Oslo. Interwoven with his quiet days are memories of a summer in his childhood at a similar cabin with his father, who was newly returned from the war. The way this book is structured is so delicate and yet completely sound, and the writing is just amazing: clear and simple sentences that resound with emotion.

6. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam
7 September 2009
Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge, is called Filth by his colleagues (an acronym for “failed in London; try Hong Kong”) in tribute to his successful career as an advocate in the Far East. Since the death of his wife, he has the chilliest of connections to the people around him, but events conspire to make him reflect upon his life and reconnect with people from his past.

7. Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman
11 February 08
Cassandra returns to Baltimore to research her next book and gets caught up in untangling her own past. I believe that what Lippman does here represents the best of what fiction is capable of. Yes, fiction can be entertaining and escapist, but where it really shines is when it opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from within someone else’s skin. This is what I look for in fiction, and what the books mentioned in today's blog have achieved so admirably.

8. The Friends of Meager Fortune, by David Adams Richards
4 May 2009
This is the story of a logging family and the rough men who work for them in the harsh, 30-below woods. It is also the story of the townspeople whose opinions shift with the wind of rumors born of boredom, envy, greed, or pride. Richards’ incantatory narration reminds us that this story happened a long time ago (just before and after the Great War) and far away (New Brunswick in the Maritimes), making it over into a legend, something that has been handed down in the oral tradition.

9. Maps and Legends, by Michael Chabon
2 February 2009
Readers of Chabon will be familiar with the subjects of some of these inventive essays, such as his passionate defense of genre literature and comics/graphic novels, his appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, the metaphor of the Golem of Prague. Where he takes these subjects, though, may astonish you.

10. In the Woods, by Tana French
14 September 2009
This award-winning mystery revolves around two cases twenty years apart in the same small suburb of Knocknaree in Ireland. It boasts an interesting story, a variety of characters, and enough suspense to keep me reading late into the night. What I loved most about this book, though, was the incredible writing.

11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
This is the story of a French concierge who hides her reading of literature and philosophy from the wealthy residents of her apartment building and the young girl who discovers her secret. At 12, Paloma feels as out-of-step with the bourgeois existence her parents and the other residents lead as Renée, the widowed concierge does. A funny and touching tale of masks and secret lives.

12. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
27 July 2009
In this book, the first and some say the still the best detective story, Collins starts with a scene worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, an account of the storming of Indian town of Seringapatam by the English army, full of riot and confusion, death and plunder. The marauding army is obsessed by the tales of the Moonstone, a fabulous jewel that carries a curse on whoever steals it, said to be somewhere within the town. Collins creates a tangle out of a country house weekend, a returning prodigal son, family tensions, and the long wake of repercussions from a single act of treachery and heartlessness. And it’s a love story too. Amazing.