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Posts Tagged ‘private detective’

When writer Robert B. Parker died in January of 2010, I was still a couple of weeks from launching this blog. Otherwise, I’d have been one of the many remembering Parker, who created tough-but-tender Boston P.I. Spenser in 1971’sThe Godwulf Manuscript. It was the beginning of a long-running series that revived detective fiction, linking the classic to the contemporary.

Many of the affectionate tributes were from writers whom he’d influenced or journalists who had interviewed him over the years; everyone it seemed had a “Bob” story to share.  I had one as well — he was the first big-name mystery writer I ever interviewed, back in 1983, at the annual book/publishing  covention known then as the ABA for American Booksellers Association. Now it’s BEA — BookExpo America — and it’s going on this week in New York City, and yes, I kind of miss it because it was an opportunity to meet writers whose books I admired and enjoyed.

The 1983 ABA in Dallas was my first, and I couldn’t understand why there were only a couple of other reporters at Parker’s late afternoon press conference. For that matter, I was the only one asking real questions. Didn’t other people know who this guy was? They did, but unlike me, they knew to to arrange ahead of time for one-on-one interviews.

Actually, mine turned into just that, because when the allotted 15-20 minutes were up, Parker and I left the press room still in deep conversation about hard-boiled crime fiction, Raymond Chandler, Boston (my parents had just moved back to S.C. after seven years in the area), the Red Sox, English lit, and, of course, Spenser. He could tell I was a fan, and we ended up in a couple of comfy chairs and continued talking until his publicist found us and carried him off to some party or dinner in his honor. He said he looked forward to our next meeting. I said, “me too — and the next Spenser.”

There were a few more meetings and a lot more Spensers, as well as two more detective series (Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall), several westerns and historical novels –60 or so books in all. I just finished what I think is the last one, No. 39 in the Spenser series, Sixkill.

It’s not great Spenser, but it’s pretty good, and much better than the few in the late middle that read as if Parker phoned them in. Hawk, Spenser’s laconic, violent sidekick, is in Singapore, alas, but Spenser still has long-time love Susan Silverman to cook for and banter with. And when police pal Quirk asks for help on a case, Spencer also begins training a new squire to his white knight.

Zebulon Sixkill, “Z,” is the Cree Indian bodyguard to badass actor Jumbo Fisher, on location in Boston and the No.1 suspect in a girl’s death in his hotel room. Jumbo sics Z on nosy Spenser, who easily takes out the former football player/bouncer without real fighting skills. Jumbo fires Z, and Spenser steps in as his new mentor. Maybe Z will eventually tell him what really went down with the girl, but Spenser also sees the potential coil of controlled violence. Before long Z’s becoming a toughened warrior, and he’s got Spenser’s back when the mob comes calling.

It’s too bad we won’t see more adventures with the new wingman, and way sad no more Spenser. Going to miss the snap-crackle-pop dialogue, the bullet-paced narratives, the moral compass that Spenser lived by.

Parker died at his desk at age 77.  Really miss him. I’ll probaby go back and reread some of the Spensers from time to time, and I saw the new Jesse Stone TV movie with Tom Selleck last night. Also, I’ve settled in with another old friend, Lawrence Block. His new Matthew Scudder — No. 17 — finds the ex-cop-turned P.I., recovering alcoholic looking back to his days on the job in the early ’70s and one case in particular. Equal parts loss and redemption, it’s aptly titled A Drop of the Hard Stuff. Recommended.

Open Book: I downloaded the e-book version of Robert B. Parker’s Sixkill (Penguin Group) to my nook. I’m reading a digital galley edition through NetGalley of Lawrence Block’s A Drop of the Hard Stuff (Little, Brown).

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Remember your first encounters with a car GPS? It was a bit disconcerting having some stranger telling you which way to go, when to turn, etc.,  especially if you were on familiar ground. Turn left? But won’t that take me into a lake? (Every other street in central Orlando leads to a lake.) Ok, I’ll go that way, but I don’t think — oh, a shortcut. Who knew?

In Kate Atkinson’s terrific — and terrifically intricate — new novel, Started Early, Took My Dog, reluctant private detective Jackson Brodie sets his GPS for his boyhood home in North Yorkshire. “The voice on Jackson’s SatNav was ‘Jane,’ with whom he had been in a contentious relationship for a long time now.”

No surprise there. Over the course of three previous books, Jackson’s women invariably inspire, disappoint and confuse him. Now he’s ostensibly looking for his second wife Tessa, who disappeared with his money, but he’s really “looking for a peg to hang his hat on, an old dog looking for a new kennel, one untainted by the past. A fresh start. Somewhere there was a place for him. All he had to do was find it.”

Meanwhile, he’ll see if he can find an Australian woman’s British birth parents. This new quest will eventually intersect with other stories playing out both in the past and present. In one, Tracy Waterhouse, a retired cop working mall security, impulsively buys a little girl from her abusive mother and prepares to reinvent her life. This is the same Tracy, who in the book’s beginning scene in 1975, is a rookie who discovers a toddler in horrific circumstances. Then there’s Tilly, the aging actress who has a bit part in a TV detective show and whose wig and memory keep slipping.  Jackson’s former lover Julia appears in the same popular series, which Jackson despises for its its “neat sanitized narrative.”

Atkinson’s narrative is hardly that. By all appearances, it’s a hot mess, lots of jumping around in totally different directions. But wait. Trust Atkinson’s GPS.  She knows exactly where the book is going as she turns left, right, left again, doubles back, then straight on to the roundabout as the characters try to save others and themselves.

Jackson comes into possession of a winsome border terrier after punching out its cruel owner. Tracy, determined to protect young Courtney, confides in her former partner, who is grieving his own great losses. A gray car with a pink furry rabbit drooping from its rearview mirror shadows Tracy, then Jackson. Linda the social worker keeps missing appointments. Hope McMasters texts Jackson from Australia: Any luck finding her parents?

Luck, coincidence, fate. Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The old refrain, “for want of a nail.” These are among the coordinates Atkinson maps with such acuity.

She has used this same narrative technique to good effect in the previous Jackson Brodie books, but she’s brilliant in Started Early, Took My Dog. Tricky plot. Memorable characters. Perfect ending. For fans, she’s certainly answered the title of her last novel, When Will There Be Good News

Open Book: I bought my hardcover copy of Started Early, Took My Dog (Little, Brown) when it was first published a couple weeks ago and read it immediately. Then I read it again.

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