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June 10, 2013

Writing after death–good idea or bad?

In The Boston Globe on May 12, there was a fascinating article by Zac Bissonnette entitled “Robert B. Parker is Dead. Long Live Robert B. Parker!” It may seem a strange headline to the non-mystery reader, but to those of us familiar with Parker’s works and his death in January 2010, it makes complete sense.

Robert B. Parker was the author of nearly seventy novels, many of them in the Spenser series. His family, particularly his wife Joan, was faced with the question that has faced the families of other writers in the crime genre. Should a series, or perhaps more than one series, be ended with the author’s death, or should another writer be found to continue it?

Obviously, this is a decision that each family must make for itself. There are arguments on both sides. Readers of a popular series are reluctant to “let go” of their favorites, and they may be ready to accept another author’s similar, if not identical, version of the protagonist and the people with whom he surrounded himself. Other readers are perhaps more loyal to the author than to his creation; they don’t want anyone else’s fingerprints on the characters that the deceased developed, even if those fingerprints are barely detectable.

According to his widow, Parker never discussed his wishes regarding whether or not someone else should continue writing about his three protagonists: Spenser, Sunny Randall, and Jesse Stone. It apparently was hard for Parker to discuss his mortality, even though at age 77 it should have been obvious that his writing life was considerably closer to its end than its beginning. But, says Joan Parker, “He was convinced he’d live to be 100. So that was not in the scheme of things at all.”

Speaking only for myself, I vote to let the characters go quietly. I agree with the estate of the late, great John D. MacDonald, author of the Travis McGee series. “It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist,” MacDonald’s son Maynard has said. Travis McGee died with his creator, which is one way of handling the situation.

Another is for the author to write a novel in which the character dies. Agatha Christie did this very successfully with Hercule Poirot, so much so that Poirot became the first and only fictional figure to have a front-page obituary in The New York Times. Although Ms. Christie wrote Poirot’s final book in the 1940s with the plan of having it appear after she died, she changed her mind and Curtain was published in 1975, a year before her own death.

Tired of writing about his popular hero, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle threw Sherlock Holmes to his (apparent) death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. “I must save my mind for better things,” Doyle wrote to his mother, “even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” But, as we all know, the public refused to accept Holmes’ death, and the author was forced to bring him back.

So apparently there is no perfect answer to the question of whether the character should live after the author’s death.  And although I read Ace Atkins’ novel Lullaby and enjoyed it, I would have preferred to have Spenser disappear when Parker died. As the New Testament has it, let the dead bury the dead. Amen.


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