The Biblioracle: Detective novels filled a literary gap

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Detective

Between reading young adult fiction and transitioning into adult literature, the Biblioracle spent many years immersed in detective novels, especially the Spenser series by Robert B. Parker. (iStockvectors illustration)

At some point in my early teens, I ran out of age-appropriate books.

Today, most of the book culture excitement is in young adult literature. There's something for everyone: "Harry Potter" for fantasy lovers and "Twilight" for romance. The "Hunger Games" trilogy and Veronica Roth's "Divergent" have science fiction covered. Authors such as John Green, Sarah Dessen, E. Lockhart, David Levithan, Rainbow Rowell and innumerable others are writing realistic, complicated relationship stories.


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The scene is sufficiently vibrant that we shouldn't even call these young adult novels; more than half of these books are purchased by adults 18 to 44 years old.

But in the mid-'80s, as I transitioned out of young reader books like "Superfudge," "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Phantom Tollbooth," most of what awaited me were "classics" such as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Catcher in the Rye," "A Separate Peace" or "Fahrenheit 451."

While these are all very fine books, they didn't really speak to the world I lived in. Besides, I read them all for school, and at the time, the easiest way to sour me on a book was to have it assigned by a teacher.

I think differently now, I promise.

Bored by "contemporary" novels that were written long before I was born, ("The Catcher in the Rye" was published in 1951, "A Separate Peace" in 1959), and not yet ready for the sophistication of contemporary adult literature, I filled the gap with detective novels, a move that has imprinted permanently on my reader DNA.

My favorite series, by far, was Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels. Always only referred to by that single name, Parker's creation became a kind of hero to me, a literary guide to proper adult behavior.

By 1970s standards, Spenser is downright progressive. Sure, he's a Smith & Wesson-carrying ex-boxer who can kick butt if necessary, but for the most part, he solves his cases with his wits. His best friend is an African-American mercenary named Hawk, who shows up whenever Spenser needs a second gun. But Spenser is well versed in literature, a gourmet cook, and a one-woman man committed to the intelligent and beautiful (in that order) Susan Silverman, Ph.D.

Parker had published a dozen or so by the time I picked up the first installment, "The Godwulf Manuscript" (1973). I read them all in a couple of weeks. Parker wrote 40 (including "Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel") before his death in 2010.

Most important to me at the time was Spenser's "code," where a person is defined by what he does, not who he is or how others see him. It sounds simple, but it's not a bad philosophy to live by. In the novels, following his code often means that Spenser pursues cases well after they're putatively "solved," because he has a nagging suspicion that he hasn't rooted out the truly "guilty."

It's a classic detective formula, pursuing order in chaos. In the end, Spenser wins the day, but we are meant to know that the victory is temporary, and chaos reigns. It's a world view I've long internalized, a sense that as a collective enterprise, humanity is pretty doomed. I don't know how you can watch the news or pick up a paper and feel otherwise.

But thanks to Spenser, I learned that we should try to do the right thing anyway.

Biblioracle John Warner is the author of "The Funny Man." Follow him on Twitter @Biblioracle.

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