Critics, fans of detective stories, and just ordinary folks have a lot of trouble talking about the relationships between artists. Take the relationship between two great writers of detective stories, the late and much-lamented Robert B. Parker and Robert Crais, for example.
The standard line is that Parker’s 38 novels about Spenser, his detective without a first name, “influenced” Crais in his 14 novels (so far) about Elvis Cole and his sidekick Joe Pike. This is true enough, as far as it goes. Crais’ wise-cracking Elvis Cole, whom he introduced in the award-winning The Monkey’s Raincoat (1987), does resemble Parker’s wise-cracking Spenser in a lot of ways. They don’t suffer fools gladly, they live alone, and they like to cook. Cole even soaks his right hand in water after a fist fight just as Spenser does. Each detective has a mysterious, eccentric sidekick who is a deadly fighter (Joe Pike for Cole, Hawk for Spenser). And some of Crais’ plots even follow Parker’s.
The easy way to characterize this relationship is to say that Crais is imitating Parker, but that obvious, simplistic way of putting it doesn’t do justice to Crais’ very considerable accomplishment. Yes, he has taken a great deal from Parker’s Spenser novels, but it’s not exactly imitation. It’s fairer to say that Crais has re-imagined the Spenser novels.
The key to this re-imagining is that Spenser lives in Boston, and Cole lives in LA. Spenser has his office on a well-known street in Boston, eats at local landmark restaurants like Locke-Ober, and reveres the city’s venerable history. Then too Spenser has Dr. Susan Silverman who is not just the love of his life, but the center of his universe. Spenser has Boston and he has Susan. As he might have said when he lapses into song, “Who could ask for anything more?”
Cole has none of this. He lives in LA, the city without a center or a history, the city where there’s no there there. Life in LA is more fluid, more deceptive than it is in Boston. For a while, though, I thought that Crais was going to give Cole his own Susan when Lucy Chenier appeared. But Crais sensed—rightly, I think—that Cole couldn’t live in LA with a beautiful, brilliant woman. Life in LA is too amorphous, too uncertain a setting for such a stable relationship. In The Last Detective Cole creates trauma and heartbreak for Elvis and Lucy, who can’t stay together through no fault of their own.
In LA Requiem, his breakout novel—one critic called it “Dostoevskian”—Crais transcends the limitations of the detective novel and reaches out to the apocalyptic tradition of writing about LA. It’s a masterpiece by the standards of any genre.
In short, the relationship between Parker and Crais, in which one writer takes another’s work and creatively re-imagines it, may be unique in detective fiction. “Influence” doesn’t begin to cover it.