How Do You Write a Great Hardboiled Novel? The Late Robert B. Parker Gave This Writer an Earful of AdviceBy Bruce DeSilva
March 03, 2011
Twenty-six years ago, long before I’d written my first crime novel, I had a long conversation with the great Robert B. Parker and got an earful about how it’s done.
I thought a lot about that conversation last night after I devoured a review copy of Sixkill, Parker’s final novel featuring Spenser, his Boston-based private eye—final because Parker is gone now, found dead at his writing desk in January of 2010.
He was 77 years old when he died; but when I met him he was 52, with a round face, a potato nose, slits for eyes, and a boys-regular haircut. He had a soft beer belly, but his chest and arms were hard muscle. I took all of that in as he opened the door of his Cambridge, Mass., condominium, looked me over, and grunted: “Oh my God! It’s the press!”
To Parker, I was just another in a long line of reporters after the standard author interview. He’d been besieged by them since filming had begun in Boston for “Spenser for Hire,” an ABC television series based on his most famous character. But he was wrong about me. My newspaper assignment was just an excuse; I’d really come to learn from the master.
Parker’s thirteenth book, A Catskill Eagle, had just been published that spring. (His final total is more than fifty, including thirty-nine in the Spenser series.) He was writing the kind of books I’d admired ever since I first read Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler in high school—the kind of books I’d feared might never be written again.
For decades, Hammett and Chandler had been where the finest American crime-fiction began and ended. Their writing was spare yet vivid, their books a delicious mixture of romanticism and cynicism. Their most famous creations, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, were the prototypes upon which all future private detectives would be based–tough heroes for America’s mean streets. But Chandler had written just seven novels and Hammett only five; and while the bookstore shelves had long been clogged with imitators, none of them–not even the MacDonalds, Ross and John–had quite measured up for me.
I had begun to wonder if a great contemporary private detective novel was even possible anymore. The knight-errant with a pistol in his shoulder holster (Browning, not the poet but the automatic) had become an implausible figure—an anachronism in post-sixties America.
But suddenly, in the 1970s, Parker appeared, and the spare, vivid writing was back. So was the unapologetically heroic private eye with the insolent mouth and a bad attitude toward authority. Best of all, Parker solved the problem of the anachronistic knight-errant brilliantly, turning his books into an examination of the limits of heroism in the modern world.
We settled down to talk in the alcove where he wrote, me on a couch with a plastic slipcover and he on his desk chair, his old manual Royal typewriter crouching on an impossibly neat desktop. At the time, he was already a best-selling author, but his legacy had not yet been firmly established.
It has now.
Parker breathed life back into the hard-boiled detective genre, which had been all but dead in the early 1970s. “Back then, most people looked at it as a museum piece,” says my pal, Ace Atkins, the author of several fine recent crime novels including Infamous. Many book reviewers, including me, prefer early Spenser novels such as Mortal Stakes and Waiting for Rachel Wallace over Parker’s later books, which were sometimes thinly plotted and repetitive of his earlier work. But there is no doubting his importance. “Parker reinvigorated the genre,” Atkins says. “I wouldn’t have a job now it weren’t for him.” As tributes from today’s top crime novelists poured in upon the news of Parker’s death, everyone from Dennis Lehane to Robert Crais said pretty much the same thing.
At first, Parker was eager to get rid of me, tossing off the stock quotes that had satisfied other interviewers. But soon it dawned on him that I’d read everything he’d written, most of it more than once, and wanted to talk seriously about his craft. We settled down for a conversation that stretched to nearly three hours.
I took copious notes; and years later, when I sat down to write my own crime novels, (Rogue Island was published last October, and Cliff Walk will be published early next year), I discovered that the things he’d said had stayed with me.
Here ‘s an abridged version of our conversation.
BD:Why do you write crime novels?
RBP:I write them because I know how, and because it never occurred to me not to write them. The process I go through is the same process Faulkner went through. The difference is that Faulkner writes better than I do, not because he is not writing crime novels but simply because he is a greater talent. He’s dead, of course, so I’ve got that on him. When I am writing, I am not thinking about mystery stories. I am just writing a novel.
BD:But there must be something about the genre that appeals to you. You are a fine writer; you could write about anything.
RBP:But that implies that if I could, I would—or that if I don’t write about other things, why on earth don’t I? It’s like saying to Fitzgerald, why did you write about all those things in the ‘20s?I write what I feel comfortable writing. Sure, there must be something about Spenser and the iconoclastic, autonomous figure that appeals to me. I think I am playing around with images of the American hero, certain archetypes of American culture—that I am writing the same kind of thing [James Fenimore] Cooper wrote, for example, about people poised outside of society. It appeals to people who buy it enough to make it a best-seller. I’m not unique in that. I am unique in that I can write it rather than just read it.
BD:So why do we read hard-boiled crime fiction? What is the appeal?
RBP: The appeal is so broad I can’t categorize it. The president of Yale reads my books, and the state cop I met at Logan Airport reads my books. Spenser, like most American cultural heroes, is immune to the temptations that beset us. You can’t scare him; you can’t buy him; you can’t lure him with sex. But more than that, I think what appeals to readers—and I don’t think they know it—is the way the language works. I think they like these books for the same reason that they like certain songs. It is an aesthetic experience for them.
BD:I enjoyed your first Spenser novel [The Godwulf Manuscript], but it seemed to me that you deliberately made the protagonist a carbon copy of Philip Marlowe.
RBP:Yeah. I mean the writing is still pretty good, but it was a conscious attempt to resurrect Marlowe. Chandler was dead, Marlowe was gone, and I missed them. I was very conscious of Chandler as I wrote, asking: What would Marlowe have done in this situation? And I had occasional tributes to Chandler in some of the scenes and dialogue. I can’t remember just what, now.
BD:Spenser, like Marlowe, was named after a British romantic poet. Both were fired from law enforcement jobs. Both had girlfriends named Loring.
RBP:Yeah. You start off to write your first novel, you don’t know what you are doing. You don’t know how in the sense that you will later know how. But pretty soon, I was going in another direction. What caused the changes in Spenser’s character after the first book were his emerging relationships with Hawk [his intimidating black sidekick] and Susan [his sweetheart.] Marlowe was a loner. Spade was four times the loner Marlowe was. Spenser has friends; he has people he can rely on. But more than that, he has a lover. I think that insofar as the books are about love, they are different from most novels written in America, whether by people who write detective stories or most other things.
BD:I’d like to get a handle on that.
RBP:Me too. We won’t have much luck with that, but we can try.
BD:When I read Love and Glory, what kept playing in the back of my mind was the first time I heard Bob Dylan sing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Such a tough love song, different from anything I’d heard before. Love and Glory is like that: romantic, but so tough.
RBP:It’s the toughness that makes the romanticism work—like in The Great Gatsby. One of the things that makes that enormously romantic novel work is that it has a very hard-eyed view of how life is. It says, better than Tom Wolfe was ever able to say, that you can’t go home again. Spenser can be romantic because he has the toughness to sustain it. Holden Caulfield, for instance, wasn’t. Make him tough, like Huck Finn, and you’ve got a very different book. Maybe it’s why Salinger couldn’t go anywhere afterward. He’d created this one saintly child and the world destroyed him, and he didn’t have anything else to say.
BD:For Spenser, Susan is the grail.
BD:Or maybe his idealized image of Susan is the grail. Spenser says he is in love with love.
RBP:Sure. The decision to believe wholeheartedly in romantic love is a decision in the face of the evidence. Very few people maintain. Very few people my age are in love with anyone, particularly their spouse.
BD: But you are, with Joan.
RBP:Yeah. It’s something one earns; it doesn’t befall you. If I could articulate it fully, I wouldn’t have to write the books. Love doesn’t simply happen. Relationships are achieved. Spenser and Susan are achieving. A hero has to deal with something besides bad guys. As the books have gone on, Spenser has had to deal with the limitations of heroism, the reality of life, the difficulty of going on.
BD:He’s also had to deal with his buddy Hawk.
RBP:Yeah. Spenser lives by a code, but Hawk isn’t hung up on rules. He’s been black in a white society all his life, and he has come to cope with it on his own terms. He is the ultimate pragmatist. He never does anything foolish. The relationship between the hero and the outcast black man or Indian is an endlessly repeated theme in the American imagination. I am doing something with that. If you were to ask me what, I would say I don’t know. I’m exploring the implications of what Spenser does for a living and what the world will demand of someone who does that sort of thing. What makes Hawk different from Spenser is that he will do anything he feels like doing. It is a tribute to Spenser’s power, and Susan’s, that Hawk cares about them.
BD:This raises the issue of Spenser’s code. Can you sum it up?
RBP:No, I really can’t. It’s intuitive. There are ways one behaves and ways one doesn’t behave. To sum it up trivializes it. Don’t hurt anyone unless you have to, try to help rather than hinder, follow the Boy Scout oath. Try to make your space a clean, well-lighted place. Do you remember “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” [a short story by Ernest Hemingway]? Macomber wants to shoot a lion from the truck. His white-hunter guide says no. Why not? Because it’s not done. If you ask the hunter to explain why it’s not done, it becomes trivial. You just don’t do that. Most of us don’t have trouble figuring out what’s not done. We just have trouble not doing it. Try not to do things that one doesn’t do—that’s about the best way to say it.
BD: And yet vigilantism seems to be flatly endorsed in Wilderness.
RBP:Vigilantism is perfectly acceptable at times and unacceptable at other times. It would have been really good, when that woman was being killed in Queens and forty-five people were watching from their windows, if somebody and gone out and killed the guy. What makes Spenser heroic is that he can do it. Most of us, when it comes right down to it, couldn’t. There’s a part of him that likes the violence. Anybody who does this sort of thing—bouncers, boxers, cops—they like to hit or they wouldn’t do this sort of thing. What was most important about the western hero was not that he drew his gun, but that he often didn’t. The restraint people like Spenser work under is significant. What’s important isn’t that he sometimes kills people but that he often doesn’t.
BD:Some people don’t take crime fiction seriously. They see even your best books as mere entertainments.
RBP:Writing is either good or it isn’t. It’s not good because it’s about 20th century angst. It’s not bad because it’s about a private detective. If it’s good, it should be taken seriously. There is a misapprehension that it’s easier to write a bad novel than a good one. It isn’t. You write what you can, and if it comes out good you are lucky.
BD:Why is this such a hard lesson for some people to learn?
RBP:Literature is perceived as what you were taught in college. Professors can’t teach books that are not difficult. If students read a book and they all understand it, there’s nothing left to talk about in class. The second thing I would say is that most reviewing in this country is not very good. Its main function is not to do something useful but to enhance the reviewer’s career. It’s easier to review a difficult book because you get to explain it.
BD:Tell me how you work.
RBP:I think up a story and then I outline. The outline isn’t terribly long – four or five pages handwritten. Catskill Eagle took me three months to think up. It’s the hardest thing to do. I may go two, three weeks with nothing on the notepad, but I am not nervous about it because I know it will come. It always has. When the outline is completed, I write five pages a day.
BD:No matter how long it takes?
RBP:Yeah. Sometimes it takes eight or ten hours, but usually it takes no more than two. But I deliberately don’t press on because if you do, then you start thinking you should write seven pages a day. It’s better just to stop. I type it up in a draft, make a few pencil changes, and someone retypes it for me and sends it in.
BD:Are you enjoying your celebrity these days?
RBP:Some. It’s an affectation to say I’m just a simple country boy and I wish they’d leave me alone. This summer I got out of a cab in front of the Ambassador East Hotel in Chicago and a guy walking by said, “My God, it’s Robert Parker,” and kept on going. That’s perfect.
Parker’s legions of fans will want to know that Sixkill, the final Spenser novel, will be published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons in May—and it’s pretty darned good.