Wherein I Avoid Facing the Loss of My Childhood Hero [Hyperbolic Tendencies]
This past May, Sixkill by Robert B. Parker arrived in bookstores. It’s the thirty-ninth book in Parker’s Spenser detective series and I’ve read each of the previous thirty-eight at least a half dozen times. The day it arrived I hauled my ass down to the local Barnes and Noble and bought a copy. Which was an odd experience since these days I buy books almost exclusively for my iPad, and before that it was my Kindle. Flash forward six months and that copy of Sixkill still sits pristine and unopened on my nightstand. Why? Because Parker, dubbed “The Dean of American Crime Fiction”, died last year and Sixkill is his last.
Between 1973 and 2011, Parker published nearly 70 books and almost all of them were bestsellers. He’s most well known his Spenser series, featuring the wise-cracking, street-smart Boston private-eye, which earned him a devoted following and reams of critical acclaim. (It’s worth clarifying that these excellent mysteries were the inspiration for the dreadful and unwatchable show Spenser: For Hire which eschewed the gritty character and ambiguity of situation that make the books so compelling for the cloying tidiness network television demands.)
I’ve been a mystery fan since I was given a set of Encyclopedia Brown books for my eighth birthday. A voracious reader, I quickly finished those, then burned through all of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew in no time at all. Since this was before there was a robust Young Adult market, I leapt into the grown up stuff, and quickly fell under the spell of mystery and noir. Carroll John Daly, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. I’d read them all by the time I became a teenager.
And then, I found Spenser.
I grew up in a safe middle class suburb of Pittsburgh, sequestered far from the tough guys and violence of noir and Spenser’s world. Nevertheless, I discovered that my own unrelenting self-doubt and paralyzing fear that someone might discover I was gay simply evaporated when I submerged myself in these stories. Particularly so with the Spenser books. And without all of the constant mental static, I was able to watch and in a way I simply couldn’t do in my real world.
Time with Spenser meant I had time with an adult who dealt with real moral ambiguity – particularly with problems in which the good of one was in direct conflict with the good of many. And with the added bonus of hearing him work through problems via internal dialog, a scared, young man with devastatingly few problem solving tools and coping mechanisms was given a gift whose value is a thousandfold more than what was paid for the books.
Because of tough-guy Spenser’s willingness to do so, I learned to cook, to lift weights, to read the classics, squarely face problems, look for the best in people. Spenser’s own rigorous introspection and code of ethics also led me to spend a great deal of time figuring out what it was I truly believed.
And because of Parker’s own willingness to lay bare his own foibles and shortcomings through what could have simply been another detective series, he was able to tackle so many important topics, from women’s rights to gay rights; from racism to politics, from media to sports. And he did it in a way that was grounded the deeply universal, human struggles we all encounter. Of falling short of our own expectations, of failing to do the right thing, of surprising ourselves and those we love by being better than we ever imagined we might be. Spenser, like his creator Parker, evolved over the years. And that, for me, is what we’re here to do.
I’ve been reading Parker’s stuff for thirty years and now, Sixkill is the last. I know I haven’t yet been able to open the book because it is the last and in a lot of ways, losing Spenser is a bit like losing a mentor. But, as Spenser once said, “I try to be honorable. I know that’s embarrassing to hear. It’s embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live life largely on my own terms.”
I think I’ll go read Spenser’s – and Parker’s – final chapter.
The prospect of letting go of your mentor a bit too daunting today? Instead, why not read a copy of Hell House: The Awakening. It’s guaranteed escapism as its finest! That’s not enough fodder for procrastination? Then follow me and my hyperbolic tendencies on Twitter at @rbripley.
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