In 1988, I lived in Huntsville, Alabama working for Olan Mills Portrait Studios as a traveling photographer, a job with slightly less dignity than scraping up road kill. I also wrote novels on big yellow legal pads, that I subsequently typed up when I had the chance (on a typewriter, even). My stuff was terrible; I had no sense of my own style, so I mimicked those of books I read (it’s a wonder I survived my Joe Lansdale Drive-In period). I had not yet discovered my own voice.
Luckily, thanks to the Huntsville Public Library, I took a chance on my first Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker, Pale Kings and Princes.
I knew the characters from the TV show Spenser for Hire, so I had no trouble jumping into this, the fourteenth book in the series. The plot was self-contained and dealt with drugs, the hot topic of the 80s. But I was unprepared for my response to Parker’s literary language: here were moral dilemmas with no easy solutions, characters sketched in vivid detail, relationships that felt real and literary jokes I got. I knew almost at once that this was the sort of writing I wanted to do.
I can even quote the passage where I felt The Big Click in my head telling me I’d found my personal literary touchstone:
The Wheaton Street Directory was the size of a phone book with a green cover plastered with ads for local establishments. At the bottom was printed A Public Service Publication of the Central Argus. It consisted of an alphabetical listing of the streets, each address and the name of the person who lived at that address. People who go to great trouble to keep their phones unlisted never think to keep themselves out of the street directory.
I started with Acorn Street and went down the list looking at the names listed opposite the numbers. In the best of all possible worlds there was no reason they couldn’t live on Acorn Street. There was no reason to think I’d have to go through the whole book. Early in the afternoon, about one-fifteen, I found the name Esteva on Water Street.
(Pale Kings and Princes, p. 63 of the hardcover first edition)
I don’t know why this particular passage struck such a chord, but it prompted a major sea change in how I wrote that reached its first fruition in the late 90s with my Firefly Witch short stories (see an example here). In them I developed my first unique narrator, figured out how to write humor that worked instead of groaned, and embraced the serious emotions I’d previously skirted.
I also became a total fan of Robert B. Parker, who passed away on Jan. 18.
There will be many far more eloquent tributes to the man and his work, from authors much more accomplished than me. There’s even at least one other author who named his son Spenser, as I did. But on the occasion of Parker’s passing I wanted to honor his influence, and to remind everyone that while the art may stick around, the artists who touch us are not infinite resources. Take a moment to look them up online and send them an e-mail; you may get a personal response, a form letter, or no reply at all. But if they, like Parker, sit down at their desk one morning and don’t get up, you’ll be glad you did.
(the author’s “RBP” signature on my copy of his western novel Appaloosa.)
*from Robert Frost’s poem, “Two Tramps in Mud Time.” Quoted in at least two Spenser novels (Mortal Stakes and Rough Weather).