Love of Mysteries; Mysteries of Love

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Five years ago my youngest sister Jordis got brain cancer. It happened suddenly. One morning her husband found her on the floor in the bathroom, unconscious from a seizure. Then the two of them and their young son Oliver heard the dread-filled words, the modern equivalent of the guillotine—incurable malignant brain tumor. She was 48 years old. The oncologist gave her six months.

My sister—the light of our family, probably the smartest and the cutest and the most fun, a woman admired and loved, always with a twinkle in her eye, absolutely radiantly alive, and with literally hundreds of friends—made it two more years. Jordis lived in the little village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, population 4,000. About 400 people came to her funeral.

None of us could do much, besides tell Jordis we loved her and try to make her life, and her husband’s and son’s lives, a little easier. The tumor didn’t hurt, since, ironically, the brain has no pain receptors. As the cancer grew, you could not tell by looking that Jordis had cancer, even after cranial surgery. In fact, she had no impairment mentally at all until the very last. She lived as the same sparkling, lively, wonderful person she always was—only with a death sentence. A Baha’i, Jordis believed strongly in a next plane of existence, so death itself wasn’t her main concern. Instead, she worried intensely about others. She fiercely loved her husband, Jerry, and son, Oliver. Leaving them behind troubled her immensely. She wrote a set of letters to her son—To Be Opened on Your 18th Birthday; on Your 25th Birthday, When You Fall in Love, When You Marry, When You Have Your First Child.

My sister read compulsively like I do, both of us voracious devourers of books. She tended to read and love literary fiction, and for a time headed up the Antioch Writer’s Workshop, where she would schedule talks by literary authors, then bask in their rarefied company. Most Mondays she would call and regale me with tales of some fascinating, profound conversation about life or art or writing she had just enjoyed with Sena Jeter Naslund or William Least Heat-Moon or some other literary hero.

If she hadn’t talked to a great writer that week, you could bet she had read a great book. Our Monday conversations, between two people who loved each other and knew each other so well, who shared much enthusiasm and awe at the well turned metaphor and the plangent paragraph, soon became the juice of life for me.

Nearly always, once we’d finished the high literary unpacking, deconstruction and meta-analysis she loved, I would tell her about the latest Robert B. Parker mystery novel.

Jordis knew my love for mysteries. (I read three or four a week, the way others watch football or garden or hunt grouse.) Even so, my sister still spoke to me.

She would faux-scoff at my low-culture pursuits. “Mental chewing gum,” she’d tell me. “Genre junk. Escapist drivel. Formulaic commercial writing. Predictable pablum. Airport books. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

We would laugh, since she had never read Parker, and since we both appreciated the vagaries of taste and temperament in two people with the same DNA. Long before the diagnosis, Jordis refused to read mysteries, even the ones I insisted stood out as excellent literature. “Come on,” I’d chide her, “get off that literary high horse and have some fun! Read a little James Lee Burke, some Elmore, maybe some Tony Hillerman! They’re incredible writers!” She said, “Life’s too short! Why would I read those popular writers (those last two words said with laughing, semi-ironic disdain) when I could be reading Dostoevsky or Shakespeare?”

Then, as the tumor grew, crowding out her beautiful and sweet and subtle brain, and as the weekly chemo and radiation started to sap her strength and ambition, Jordis slowly realized she didn’t have much longer to live. Our Monday calls took a turn I didn’t expect.

“This is so serious,” she’d say. “It’s like living under a big dark thunderhead. I’m losing my ability to forget, to detach from myself, just to really escape this thing for a few minutes and laugh,” she told me. “Help me laugh again.”

I began to send her Robert B. Parker novels.

And she loved them. We would talk, at the beginning of each new week, about how powerfully they delighted her.

“His dialogue!” she’d say. “It is brilliant! There is nothing like it in all of literature! It’s incredibly funny and trenchant and Hemingwayesque, and I can’t stop laughing when I read him.”

He’s not a comedy writer, I’d insist. Parker mysteries show the real world, love and commitment, crime and punishment, morality and ethics. Most mystery fiction falls short of that lofty pinnacle, but Parker scaled it and stayed there for most of his enormously prolific career.

“Profound explorations of modern life, and much more serious,” I’d say, in the affectionately teasing, half-kidding, half-serious way we always talked to each other, “than all those navel-gazing literary types you gravitate towards….”

I told Jordis that Robert B. Parker wrote 60 books, mostly detective novels, with a smattering of police procedurals, westerns and even young-adult fiction. The writer everyone called the Dean of American Crime Fiction created Spenser, the tough, wise-cracking, not-that-sensitive boxer/Boston private investigator. That one character launched films, TV series, and laid claim to millions of devoted readers. Parker also created Spenser’s sidekick—the violent, erudite and utterly cooler-than-anyone alter-id Hawk—one of the most beautifully realized interracial bromances ever put to paper.

That Spenser-Hawk dialogue—the essence of Parker’s best novels—gave my sister pure delight. It attains poetic heights of economy and wit and soul:

We parked beside a hydrant and sat for two hours watching the front door of Patricia Utley’s building through the rainwashed windshield. The water on the windshield distorted things, fusing the colors and bending the straight lines of the Upper East Side….
“This detective work is thrilling,” Hawk said. “No wonder you’ve made it your life’s work.”
I leaned my head back and stretched my neck. Outside the car, the rain was coming straight down and hard.
“I think I’ll maintain my post here in the car,” I said. “If one of them comes out, one of us can always jump out and follow.”
“One of us?” Hawk said.
“Hey,” I said. “Are we buddies or what?”
“Salt and pepper,” I said. “Black and white. Friends across the racial divide. Share and share alike.”
“I ain’t tailing nobody in the rain, honkie,” Hawk said.
“Chingachgook would have done it for Leatherstocking,” I said.
“Jim would have done it for Huck.”
“I ain’t tailing nobody in the rain, Huck.”
“Tonto would do it.”
“I ain’t your faithful Indian companion,” Hawk said.
“Faithful Native American companion,” I said, “is now the preferred way to say that.”
Hawk nodded as if he’d just heard useful information.
He said, “Snow or sleet neither, kemosabe.” (from Hundred-Dollar Baby)

In 40 years of writing, Robert B. Parker developed a single set of characters and one continuous narrative that played out humanity’s universal longing for fairness through 40 Spenser titles.

Think about that, I told Jordis in one of our Monday calls. Forty novels! With three consistent, compelling main characters we’d all love to hang out with. Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. Dickens wrote 20 novels, Steinbeck 29—and though everyone knows quantity has no relationship to any measure of quality, the Spenser books, in their sheer volume and massive popularity and continuing creation of iconic characters, represent a true milestone in literature.

Parker wrote one unbroken, internally consistent and mythically cohesive saga across 40 sets of covers, spanning four decades of writing. I counted—these books make up more than 10,000 pages of powerful, propulsive, engaging work. Think of one 10,000-page novel, with coherent characters and plotlines and worldview. What an incredible artistic accomplishment for an author. I can’t think of any other modern writer who’s matched it.

Together the arc of the main character’s lives—Spenser, Hawk, and the feminist psychiatrist Susan Silverman—all transcribe a remarkable longitudinal chronicle of race, relationships gender, and justice in Western society. Parker’s characters—black, Latino, Indian, every nationality … and gay, lesbian, straight, religious and atheist, whole or damaged or deranged beyond repair—make up one of the most diverse and interesting pantheons of pro- and antagonists ever written by an American author.

For example, critics credit Parker as one of the few American novelists who consistently got gay characters right. A few point to Parker’s two gay sons as the reason. I doubt that pat explanation rings completely true, because Parker had a dead-accurate nose for character—and a rich vein of the ore every writer searches for and few find, the precious metal of empathy and understanding. His Harvard-educated Jewish psychotherapist love interest Dr. Silverman, for example, came alive in the Spenser books—her voice, traits, eating habits, problems, laugh, her fully fleshed-out humanness. I dare you not to fall in love with her … and with Parker’s other creations.

Parker started writing about Spenser in 1971. He stopped writing on January 18, 2010. His large, magnanimous heart gave out as he sat at his desk one Monday morning to write his self-imposed mandatory five pages a day. He kissed Joan, his true love of 53 years. She went out for a run. When she came back, Parker was gone.

On that day I was in the middle of composing a letter to Robert B. In my experience, writers are the artists who get the least feedback from their audience—we sit in a room and face that blank screen and hope with everything in us to make a deep connection out there somewhere. I wanted to tell Parker, clearly and without sentimentality, how much light and laughter he’d given my sweet sister before she passed away.

Dear Mr. Parker—I wanted you to know how much your books meant to my wonderful sister, who just died of brain cancer. In her forty-ninth and last year of life you lightened her load, you made her laugh, your creation and your wit and your compassion for humanity gave her the best and most intense enjoyment art can deliver. And beyond entertainment and enjoyment, you helped her transcend her suffering. I can’t imagine a higher calling. Thank you for dedicating your life to your art, and to enriching the world with it.

That’s as far as I got. I struggled with that letter, because I wanted to let him know that his words, his mind, his beautiful humanitarian creation, afforded her some respite and comfort and joy.

But I missed my chance. While I was still thinking about what to say, about how to sufficiently thank him, he died.

Great literature enriches our experience of being alive, since in great literature we meet the world. We have the profound privilege of getting to know Hamlet and Emma Bovary and the Invisible Man and Jay Gatsby and Scarlett O’Hara and Frodo and Yossarian and Atticus and Scout and Boo and Spenser and Hawk and Susan. No matter what genre, great writing, like all great art, centers us in our humanness, opens our eyes to our faults and foibles, and allows us to envision the nobility we all seek. It widens our lives.

Steinbeck said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that “… the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man’s proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit.”

That’s exactly what Robert B. Parker’s magnificent work did for my sister.

David Langness is a writer, editor and literary critic who lives in the Sierra foothills in Northern California.

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