Chandler or Parker
The Times 9th December 1989
One of Robert B. Parker's detective novels is set in Beverly Hills and he has Spenser, his private eye, describe the city as an empty place, a Disneyland after hours, and ask: "What're they doing in there, watching videotapes of people living?" We are in Chandlerland.
And now Parker, who looks like a lumberjack and thinks like a professor, is Raymond Chandler. Or at least, close enough to satisfy Chandler fans and the American critics with the publication and huge sales of Poodle Springs. It is a publishing event. With wit and intelligence and a lot of pressure, Parker has concluded a collaboration with the master.
When Chandler died in 1959 he left 12 pages - in Chandlerland that's four brisk chapters — of an unfinished novel featuring Philip Marlowe, his legendary private eye. Marlowe has married the wealthy Linda Loring (from The Long Goodbye and Playback) but, of course, he wants to remain his own man financially and emotionally. He's looking for an office in the Springs in which to hang his snap-brimmed fedora and to carry on his business as a knight errant on the seamy side of the street.
There are problems with Linda's money, unfriendly local cops, a sleazy nightclub owner and a couple of minor league hoodlums whom Marlowe easily dusts off.
That's the Chandler part. He stopped writing in mid-page. What follows, a clever plot and vintage dialogue, reads like Chandler at his best but it's really Parker, who received applause from Ed McBain, creator of the "87th Precinct" mysteries. In a review McBain wrote: "It is impossible to think of any other writer in the world better qualified for the task."
McBain is not all praise. He finds Chandler's marrying of Marlowe a little out of step with the character and writes: "Mr Parker is not wholly successful in shedding the ghost of Linda Loring who clings to the entire enterprise like a cloying designer perfume. But he has taken the slimmest of beginnings and has fashioned from it a rattling good mystery."
Not only had Parker devoted part of his doctoral dissertation to Chandler but he is the creator of the literate, witty and tremendously readable novels about Spenser, a private detective who has proved his staying power over some 17 books and a television series.
He was approached by Ed Victor, who represents the Chandler estate, to complete Poodle Springs. It was not the money that attracted him, because he has earned a fortune from the success of Spenser. It was the challenge that he found irresistible.
Even in Los Angeles, Marlowe's town of mean streets and home to Chandler, he is being praised for his enterprise and the book is selling well. There are purists who remain unconvinced, but in general Poodle Springs - "by Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker" reads the dust jacket — has been surprisingly well received, with the Los Angeles Times calling it "skilled and entertaining".
"I thought it would be a seller but I always thought the critics would be on top of me. I was convinced they would say it is just another Spenser book with the character's name changed," said Parker. Now 57, Parker's two sons are grown up (one's a ballet dancer, the other an actor). He and his wife Joan "rattle around" in a large house on the outskirts of Boston.
Chandler was 51 when he completed his first novel, The Big Sleep. Parker was writing technical and advertising copy when he returned to college at 30 and began work on a Ph.D.
"I was 39 when I got it. It takes a long time when you are trying to do it part time and support a house and two cars and a wife and two kids. My dissertation was on the American hero and his evolution from cowboy to private eye. It had to be with puritanism and the frontier."
The Spenser novels began in 1972. "You have to be able to write, think up a story and do it regularly. The goal of my day is to write five pages, run a couple of miles and lift some weights.
"If I have done those things I have fulfilled the day's mission. If I don't do one I tend not to do any. That's the way the machine works. I don't know anyone who likes writing, likes getting down and doing it. I like having it done and the fact that I car do it again."
He read his first Chandler book in 1946 when he was 14 and read them all again for the twelfth time before starting out last year on Poodle Springs. But he makes this clear: "I wasn't trying to imitate Chandler in the sense of copying his style and using similes the way he did.
"Although the story starts out in Palm Springs, most of the action takes place in Los Angeles. I went out to Palm Springs for the day with a movie producer friend. We had a Polaroid and a tape recorder and took notes. In the movies you can see it, but in a book you have to get what it feels like. Then I drove around old Hollywood for a time.
"All I need to know is what it feels like. Most of the story is set in Los Angeles because I didn't want to spend all that time in Palm Springs. What could I do there? I don't play golf. I don't like sunburn. I don't drink. And Marlowe and Los Angeles really are inseparable.
"But Chandler's sense of place and southern California are, in part, a contrivance of the reviewers who are a little uncomfortable in liking Chandler as much as they do. They say they can't like him because it isn't great literature, because he's writing detective stories. And they can't like him for his hard-guy dialogue because they think they're too smart for that. So it must be his sense of place.
"In fact, Chandler may not know the city as well as we think he does. That's illusion. The real trick isn't knowing the city well enough, it's being clever enough.
"I grew up wanting to be Raymond Chandler and now, in a sense, I am."
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