JohnJosMiller’s Creature Feature

In Books by JohnJosMiller5 Comments


I was reading the last Spenser novel last night and it got me to thinking about the two great writers we lost about a year apart about the same time of the year, Robert Parker and Donald Westlake. Both were favorites of mine. Both weren’t young, both died suddenly.

Donald Westlake was the first to go. He died New Year’s Eve, 2008, of a heart attack while on the way to a party while vacationing in Mexico. Not a bad way to go, all in all, but still, who wants to miss a New Year’s Eve party?

He was the more versatile writer of the two, and more prolific, though neither was exactly Harper Lee in terms of output. Westlake’s first story, after over two hundred rejections (if Wikipedia can be believed, and, hey, it’s on-line, so why not?) was published in 1954, his first novel with his name on it (some soft-core porn under a pseudonym came first) in 1960. He published over a hundred novels, science fiction, mysteries (both hardboiled and funny), and a couple of non-fiction books.

Most of his sf is competent, decent work, but is entirely forgotten today. One short story that is undeservedly forgotten is “Nackles,” a scary tale of the anti-Santa Claus, Nackles, who rides through the sewers in a sled pulled by, if memory serves me right, black goats, visiting the bad children of the world. The story itself has been unfortunately overshadowed by the controversy generated when Harlan Ellison (who else?) attempted to adapt it for Twilight Zone and was stymied by the suits. It deserves to be remembered. Seek it out and you won’t be disappointed.

Though Westlake wrote a number of fine stand-alone novels (among them HIGH ADVENTURE, which is the hilarious tale of fake Mayan artifacts being smuggled into the US inside bales of marijuana and DANCING AZTECS, another Mexican-themed novel) he’s best remembered for his two long-running series, Parker (coincidentally enough) and Dortumunder.

Parker came first. These are tersely told tales of a hard-nosed, one might say relentless, professional thief named Parker who doesn’t mind getting tough himself when the going gets tough. They have titles like THE HUNTER, THE MAN WITH THE GETAWAY FACE, SLAYGROUND, and BUTCHER’S MOON. Parker lacks many human emotions. He is not sadistic, but he is remorseless and God help you if you cross him. He appears in 24 novels ranging from early in Westalke’ career (1962) to late (2006). I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read a bunch; all have been good, especially if you’re a fan of the hard-boiled school, which I am.

John Dortmunder, a two time loser raised in an orphanage in Dead Indian, Illinois, appeared in fourteen novels and a number of short stories (1970-2009). His chronicles have titles like WHY ME?, GOOD BEHAVIOR (a personal favorite wherein he’s captured by nuns and forced to do their bidding), DROWNED HOPES, DON’T ASK, and, WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN? Despite the downer titles, the books are all hilarious crime capers with complicated, over the top plots and engaging characters. The violence in them is limited to the occasional bonk over the head or the tying up of someone when it’s absolutely necessary.

Besides Dortumunder himself (whose [stolen] family motto reads: Quid lucrum istic mihi est?, which for the non-Latin reading non-scholars among you means “What’s in it for me?”) the criminal genius best described as dour and pessimistic, the regular gang includes his best friend Andy Kelp, driver Stan Murchison (who listens to records of car races for relaxation and lives with his Mom, a cab driver known as “Murch’s Mom”), and “Tiny” Bulcher, the group’s muscle (in the first Dortmunder book I read he was introduced in the midst of one of his favorite money making activities, picking up a small foreign car and putting it in the back of a truck) whose favorite drink is vodka and red wine. Mixed together.

The final Dortmunder novel, GET REAL, appeared in 2009. In it a reality show producer wants to make a series around Dortmunder’s next caper. Dortmunder agrees, applies his family motto, and comes up with a complicated scheme wherein he and the gang actually are filmed carrying out their thievery, yet not getting jugged for it. Impossible? Not for Dortmunder.

Pay no attention to the various Dortmunder movies that have been made over the years. I haven’t seen them all, but those that I’ve seen have been awful. Let me know if you’ve actually seen a good one.

So that brings us to Robert Parker.

Parker died January 18, 2010 of a heart attack. He was found by his wife while sitting at his desk and working on a novel. He was 77. An appropriate way for a writer to check out, and not the only example of this I’ve come across. Parker wrote about sixty novels, all or most (I haven’t read them all) hard-boiled mysteries, though here I’m assuming that his short western series had a mystery aspect to it. Forty plus were in the long running, award winning Spenser (you never learn his first name) series.

Parker had a PhD in literature (his dissertation was on tough-guy writers Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald). His novels are littered with literary allusions (eg, Spenser was the author of the medieval poem THE FAIRIE QUEEN). But also baseball, boxing, basketball, and other pop culture references.

His writing in the Spenser books is sparse, with short sentence and paragraphs (yet never lacking character or setting description) heavily loaded with witty dialog and repartee that he uses to good effect to characterize his characters and move the plot. The geography of Parker’s beloved Boston is lovingly detailed, giving the city near character status. His plots are not labyrinthine. Especially in the middle of the series (which is pretty characteristic for a forty-book series), the plots get a little skimpy. But the mysteries themselves are hardly why you read the books. You read the books to watch Spenser, a man of highly personal, highly rigid moral convictions, not all of which are conventional, interact with the world, especially the various cops he works with (or against), the antagonists he faces, Susan, a Harvard PhD in psych and his steady girlfriend, and Hawk, his best friend who often steals the show from Spenser himself.

The first fifteen books or so are golden. Uniformly excellent. They began to lag a little in the middle, but he picks it up and finishes strongly. PAINTED LADIES, which I read last night, is not equal to his greatest efforts in the beginning of the series, but is an engaging mystery with a believable if not entirely novel set of characters and a strong moral point for Spenser to crack and a fairly complex plot for him to unravel. Which he does with his unusual aplomb.

I did miss Hawk (who apparently was off in Central Asia doing mysterious things). While nattering about on-line while researching this post, I did see that another Spenser book is scheduled for May 2011. Is this a Parker Spenser book? It says so on the cover and while I have no concrete reason to think that it’s not, I find the scheduling a tad suspicious. But maybe there’s another Spenser book in the offing after all. I’ll look forward to it.

Meanwhile, I hope that Westlake and Parker both are in writer’s Valhalla swapping war stories with their peers while Dortumunder and Spenser cavort with their homeboys, Sam Spade, The Continental Op, Marlowe, Travis McGee and all the rest, in the Character’s Lounge. What outrageous stories they must tell there.

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