A long goodbye

Robert B. Parker died a year ago today. He had a massive heart attack while writing at his desk in his suburban Boston home. There are worse ways to go.

He wrote his first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, the year I was born, and kept writing them right up until the day he died. The last of his terrific Spenser novels will be released this spring. And I’ll attack that book the same way I devour them all. Parker’s prose is so smooth that you read his books in hours instead of days.

Parker, Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard are my holy trinity for crime fiction. No one else even comes close. And of those three, Parker is first among equals — mostly because I found him first.

I still remember finding his novel Chance by accident in a Wal-Mart book section (no snob, I). I read the back cover copy and realized that the Spenser in the book was the same character in one of my all-time favorite TV shows: Spenser: for Hire.

I loved that book, even though I haven’t seen it or read it in years. That first kiss with Parker’s characters led me to backtrack through the Spenser novels. I was ravenous for them. They were full of action, humor, incredible dialogue. I felt I knew the characters, knew Boston, and knew the author.

While I agree with his critics that Parker’s work declined in later years, he still released some great novels. 2007’s Cold Service stands out to me as a particularly good piece of his later works.

Parker branched away from Spenser, and Hawk, and Susan Silverman — giving us two series of books about Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall. You may have seen the Jesse Stone movies starring Tom Selleck. While Selleck isn’t who I’d have picked to play Jesse, I think he did a fine job with the character. Sunny Randall was supposed to be a star vehicle for Helen Hunt, but it never worked out.

And maybe you’ve seen the movie Appaloosa starring Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris? Yeah, that was based on a Parker novel of the same name.

Robert B. Parker did the same thing for me that he did for a lot of writers: he showed us the way. He showed us how to write with economy and wit and panache. He showed us how to write relationships that matter, and how a straight white male can incorporate various genders, races and sexual orientations into his writing. Whatever his shortcomings, Parker was a master when he sat down at the keyboard. There are at least three new Parker novels coming out this year.

I won’t miss a single one of them. Each volume will be a long goodbye to a writer — and a man — to whom I’m still indebted.

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