Monday, December 14, 2009

Evolution of a Writer

I was asked recently about two novels by two of my favorite authors: CHASING DARKNESS, by Robert Crais and NOW & THEN, by Robert B. Parker. And while I don't remember the specifics of each book (Parker's series books, especially, tend to blur together -- and more on that, later), I have been meaning to write about these two authors, and how they relate to one another, for awhile now.

I discovered Robert B. Parker in high school, and his writing literally changed my life. CEREMONY was the first Spenser novel I read (after watching the TV series, SPENSER: FOR HIRE) and it opened my eyes to modern writing. Up until then, any prose I read were stuffy and boring English assignments. But Parker's prose was light, smart, fun -- the works. And it painted such a complete picture. And for far, far too long, I (unfairly) judged every other prose writer by how they compared to Parker.

Case in point: Robert Crais. Crais' first novel, THE MONKEY'S RAINCOAT, was published in 1987, which is just about the exact same time I was discovering Parker. It wasn't until years later that I became aware of Crais, and even then, my first impression was that he was a Parker rip-off ... because he was.

Parker had Spenser, a wise-cracking ex-boxer. Crais had Elvis Cole, a wise-cracking martial artist. Spenser had a strong, silent partner named Hawk, who operated by his own moral code. Cole had a strong, silent partner named Joe Pike, who operated by his own moral code. Even the writing styles were similar. And this prevented me from enjoying Crais, so I didn't really get into him until years later.

Somewhere in one of my desk drawers are some old magazine articles written by Parker, aimed at writers. Stuff about how to write a series character, how to plot, etc. It's fascinating stuff, both because of the actual advice, but also because of how Parker seems to have changed his approach over the years. For instance, in one of these articles he advocates writing an outline before actually scripting the novel. At the time he wrote the article, he also outlined his novels. More recently, however, he seems to have changed his approach. I've seen him interviewed numerous times where he states he no longer outlines. Something about how he's been doing this so long that he doesn't need to outline anymore. And you know what? It shows.

Parker's gift has always been his dialogue. It's always fun, light, and zippy. And he can say more about a character with less words than pretty anyone. But his plots have always been kind of light, especially for a "mystery" writer. The mysteries are far from complex, and more and more over the years, they follow a basic formula. Somewhere in the first third of the novel, Spenser (or his other series leads, Jesse Stone or Sunny Randall) basically deduce the identity of the bad guy through little more than a gut feeling, and spend the rest of the novel following the guy around, waiting for him to make a move. Sometimes, Parker's heroes will make themselves targets, to draw the bad guy out. And in the end, the bad guy will either be killed, or the hero will blackmail the bad guy in such a way as to put him out of business. But the bad guy is rarely simply arrested. 

To me, this gets frustrating because Spenser (or Jesse, or Sunny) is never, ever wrong. Like I said, in the first third of the book, Spenser IDs the bad guy, and that's that. No doubt, and he's never wrong. I like a confident hero as much as the next guy, but an infallible one? Not so much.

Which brings me to Robert Crais. To date, Crais has written 11 Elvis Cole novels (plus one focusing on Joe Pike, in which Cole is a supporting character). His second Joe Pike novel comes out next month. His first 7 Cole novels were very Spenser-ish. Written in the first person, featuring the same kind of wit, with Cole and Pike doing their best Spenser and Hawk impressions. But even from the start, Crais' books had much stronger plotting. The mysteries were more complex. The villains' motivations and plans were more original and involving. 

But in the 8th Elvis Cole novel, L.A. REQUIEM, Crais blew the doors off of everything he set up previously. Think of it, in comic book terms, of a "bold, new direction." While it's still a Cole novel, the book switches POV numerous times, and works in numerous flashbacks, all to flesh out the tragic backstory of Joe Pike. While the Cole books had been getting better and better all along, L.A. REQUIEM represents a quantum leap forward, and almost transcends the PI genre. I don't mean to overhype it -- it's still simply a thriller novel (albeit, very well done), but it doesn't seem to follow the same conventions of the typical (re: Parker) PI novel.

Parker routinely turns out three or four novels a year. 2007 saw NOW & THEN (a Spenser novel), HIGH PROFILE (a Jesse Stone novel), SPARE CHANGE (a Sunny Randall novel), and THE EDENVILLE OWLS (a Young Adult novel). Compare that with Crais, who releases a book a year -- if that.

I've had the pleasure of exchanging emails with Craigs a handful of times (he's a comic book fan), and he confirmed that he thoroughly outlines each book. I don't mean to imply that outlining is definitely better than not outlining. I, personally, never write anything until I've got a decent out of where the story's going.

I realize I may come off sounding too hard on Parker in this post. I still love his books, simply for the chance to revisit and spend time with the characters he's created. And his light prose style is second to none.

But Crais, to me, is the example of an author who continually strives to improve himself with each book. Not to get faster, but to get better.


Caine said...

I think you're dead on with your numbers. "The Monkey's Raincoat" opens with a lady entering Elvis's office (Pike has half but is never there) who could be sexy if she allowed her self to bee. Something Elvis see's right through when she tries to hire him on her terms instead of his. Elvis makes a very Spenser comment. Something like: "As much as I'd like to drip maple syrup on your legs and lick it off I need you to shut up". As soon as I read it I thought of Spenser, and proceded to love Crais ever since.

Did you read Demolition Angle (Carol Starky)? I loved that one as well.

Jay Faerber said...

DEMOLITION ANGEL and HOSTAGE are the only two Crais books I've never read, although I keep meaning to get around to it.

And THE TWO MINUTE RULE, another non-Cole book, is probably my favorite of all of his books.

Caine said...

I'll have to check out the "Two Minute Rule" that's about a con let out of prison or something similar...I think.

Jay Faerber said...

Yeah, it's a former bank robber trying to solve the murder of his policeman son with the help of the FBI agent who put him away.