In the past month, and almost within the same week, I lost two very dear friends. Dick Francis was 89 years old. Robert B. Parker was 76. Between them, they wrote more than 110 books and I have read every one of them except their last (only one of which has just been published) and you can bet that they are on order.
By my loose reckoning, I have spent something like 15 weeks of 40 hour work weeks with Mr. Francis and Mr. Parker, but really it is much more than that. I started reading Dick Francis in college and seeing as though he started writing in 1962, I had a lot of catching up to do. I started reading Robert B. Parker in college as well, but it really started getting interesting when a) I moved to Boston, the location of many of his novels, and b) my girlfriend then fiance then spouse started reading Parker as well. I even received a signed Parker book from my then fiance as a gift. I was thrilled. I have multiple bookshelves devoted to both of these men. Most of my Dick Francis collection, unfortunately now, is in paperback. But we have all the Parker's in hardcover and many are duplicated in paper.
Dick Francis started his career training to be a jockey (he left school at 15) , but WWII interrupted that progression and he became a fighter and bomber pilot for the Royal Air force - piloting Hurricanes and Spitfires. He became a steeplechase jockey upon his return from the war and was a very successful one - named champion jockey in 1953-54. He was the Queen's jockey as well, but had a spectacular failure in "the National" when his horse collapsed just before the finish line. A number of subsequent injuries forced his retirement as a jockey (in the late 60s) and he began writing articles for The Sunday Express of London (something he did for the next 16 years). Racing's loss was my gain. Each of Dick Francis's novels was somehow related to horse racing, but not necessarily as the central theme. In each and every case, Francis did meticulous research to understand and then use specific expertise in his mystery novels. For example, in Bonecrack I learned about antiques and the business of antique dealing, in Shattered, glass blowing, and in Second Wind, meteorology. Mr. Francis wrote a terrific mystery - intriguing, confusing, interesting. Most of the time English racing was the backdrop and I lost myself in his books. Mr. Francis never wrote the same book, each had its own world. Even when he used the same main character (as he did only rarely with Sid Halley and Kit Fielding), the books were all stand-alone.
Robert B. Parker graduated from college and went to war in Korea. When he returned he went back to school and got his Master's in English Literature and worked in advertising for a while. He returned to Boston University and received his Ph.D. with a dissertation titled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality", addressed the fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. He taught at Northeastern University, became a full professor but turned to full time writing after his first few novels were published. Parker gave us the wise-cracking, good-hearted, but hard-as-nails PI by the name of Spenser, the love of his life Susan Silverman, and his sometimes partner/backup Hawk. He gave us Captain Healy and Lt. Quirk, and Sargent Belson. They were my friends. Even better, my spouse and I read the same books, loved the intimate patter between Spenser and Susan, and occasionally thought (but never spoke) that we had conversations like they did. Parker had other character series -- the ex-big city cop now small town cop with a drinking problem (Jesse Stone), and the daughter of a Boston cop, ex-cop turned private eye with a mobster's son as an ex-husband (Sunny Randall) and a few really good westerns featuring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.
Parker had a philosophy that he used in all 60+ novels - there is honor in this world and the good, right people - regardless of what else they may do - worry about that. Those people have a code of conduct and they follow it. Spenser has a code he lives by (and he's a good guy). Hawk, who is decidedly not always a good guy, has a very similar code that guides him and while he may break legs for a living, Spenser can rely on him to to do the right thing. Similarly, Hawk can unconditionally rely on Spenser. Its simplistic, sure. But it helped Robert B. Parker entertain me endlessly.
Parker and Francis provided the literary equivalent of comfort food. When I was stressed, or tired, or uncomfortable, or sick, I would pull out a volume and re-read. I would laugh at the same wisecracks (Parker) or marvel at the mastery of a foreign skill (Francis) and disappear from the world for a few hours (both). I can still do that - in fact, there are two Parker novels and one Francis book on my bedside table right now and I bet neither was written before 1990. It is nice to know that in some ways they will never leave me.
However, there will be (by May of this year) no more new Spenser novels or Jesse Stone, or Sunny Randall stories. No more adventures with Virgil and Everett and I will really miss all of them. I loved it when I found out a new book was out. I will miss that excitement too. Better news for the Francis dynasty -- the last four Dick Francis mysteries were co-written with his son, Felix. While I know it will not be exactly the same, I hope Felix gives it a shot -- it would be a delight to have some new Francis mysteries to keep me company.
For Dick Francis's bibliography, please visit Dick Francis;
For Robert B. Parker's bibliography, please visit Robert B. Parker