Robert B. Parker: The king is dead

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By Tim Redmond

Damn, I haven't been this bummed since the death of John D. MacDonald.. SFGate reports today that Robert B. Parker collapsed at his desk; the king of trash-lit detective novels is dead at 77.

The obits will talk about Parker in the same breath as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and that's true, as far as it goes. But in terms of period writing and a continuing-series character who was attractive as much for his faults at for his good deeds, Parker and MacDonald had a lot more in common. Like Travis McGee, MacDonald's knight in slightly tarnished armor, Parker's Spenser was a tough guy with a sense of humor about himself, someone who cared (almost despite his best instincts) about humanity and wasn't bitter, angry, lonely or needlessly violent.

McGee was a creature of Florida in the Sixties, a tanned and restless womanizer who lived on a houseboat and practically existed for casual sex. His attitude toward women was often described as patronizing, and in the early works, the girls are mostly there for McGee's amusement, but that changes toward the end; McGee falls deeply in love in the Green Ripper, has a daughter who changes his life -- and turns out to be not such a sexist pig after all. The McGee books are also packed with environmental wisdom and a sharp description of the ugly side of development-crazy Florida.

And it may not seem such a big deal now, but when MacDonald started writing in the 1950s, the idea the a main character in a tough-guy American novel would have a best friend who was Jewish was something unusual.

And then there's Spenser. He came along in the 1980s, but from the start was a creature of the modern world, a Boston private detective who -- as much as anyone in that genre could ever be -- was a liberal. His best buddy was a black guy who drank fine champagne (and, of course, totally kicked ass). His life partner was a Harvard-trained psychologist, and he never fooled around on her; in fact, in many of the books, he rejects the advances of other women, noting that he is, and for all his life will be, "the main squeeze of Susan Silverman." He has gay characters who are as tough as he is and get the same respect as anyone who can swing a mean fist and shoot a gun.

And nobody wrote like John D. MacDonald -- except possibly Robert B. Parker.

So Spenser is gone. Boston, and American literature, will never be the same.