By William Urban


            Robert Parker is a well-known figure in detective fiction and appropriately has a number of Recorded Books available in the Warren County Library. This being garden season again, I recently listened to his thirtieth novel, as of 2004, Back Story.

            A back story is a narrative based on events that explain the present. This is always done in the form of flashbacks, memories, recollections and new discoveries about the past. In the case of this novel, Parker’s hero — a super-tough, independent-minded PI named Spenser with a super-strong Black Sidekick, Hawk (no first names, but, yes, he does ask what “Chemo Savvy” means) — is asked by a friend to look into the death of a woman in a bank robbery twenty-eight years before.

            Those who remember the Weather Underground will have no trouble imagining the incident. Bill Ayer’s girlfriend and her associates raised money by sticking up banks, shooting those who tried to resist the traditional left-wing method of financing their operations. (They had been living off their parents, but that was not enough money for buying bomb-making materials, drugs, and the other expenses of typical East Coast radicals. They blew themselves up trying to make a bomb to be used at an army dance.) Readers who know the context of Chemo Savvy will have no trouble recalling that event.

            The next part of the back story is less well known. The radicals went into hiding with like-minded college friends who shrank back from murder but were excited to be part of “the movement.” It was cool to believe that all incarcerated Blacks were in prison only because society was racist. A few went beyond marijuana and beer to form alliances with militant Black Power organizations, worked to get felons released, and yelled that all cops were pigs. Angela Davis became famous for her role in helping Black Panthers escape from prison, taking with them hostages (including a judge they later murdered); she had purchased the guns and was suspected of helping get them to the convicts, but the judge at the trial ruled that owning the guns was not proof that she was involved in the breakout. A beautiful and brilliant student who had fallen deeply into Post-Modern thinking, then became a Communist, she was given a chair in the History of Consciousness Department (you can’t make these things up) at the aptly-named University of California at Davis, lecturing on race, feminism and the cause de jour—whatever would draw a shaggy crowd of Sixties wantabes, reliving those glorious days by wearing shabby clothes, smoking weed, and saying, “hey, man,” a lot.

Even today we are reminded of this era by efforts to get Mumia Abu-Jamal released from prison where he has sat on death row for years after his conviction for the brutal murder of a policeman who had pulled his brother over on a traffic violation. The leftist view is that he is a political prisoner. He has been the invited speaker at several college Commencements, delivering his address by telephone.

Readers who know nothing of this back story will surely be slightly confused by the persons that Spenser and Hawk meet, because their later careers in crime, education and the arts were often very successful. All understandably insist that Spenser just forget it. This attitude was shared by the FBI, which had used informants to find out what the radicals were doing, just as it had persuaded patriots to infiltrate the KKK in the long hot summers of the 1960s in order to learn what was going on. Bill Ayers is walking free today, we are told, because of the FBI’s reluctance to reveal names of informants and because some wire recordings were not admissible in court.

Most of Spencer’s discoveries would not have been admissible, either, nor was he motivated by public spirit. In order to avoid being shot or beaten to death, he had to stay one step ahead of the thugs sent to remove him. Some former hippies were now so drugged out that they couldn’t operate a weapon (and if they could have acquired one, they would have traded it for more marijuana), but there were men who once saw crime as a way to get justice, revenge, and fame, but now just wanted to stay out of jail. There is no statutory limit on murder.

Parker’s client wanted justice, too. She wanted her mother’s killer caught.

Perhaps that is one of Parker’s attractions, that his audience is worn out by criminality and by gangsters’ political allies and lawyers twisting the law to get them off. The Sixties had a definite dark side.

American opinion is still divided over that era. Remember the differing reactions to the OJ Simpson trial? That was mild compared to thirty years earlier, when Olympic athletes gave the Black Power salute.

It is hard to imagine all that happening today, though without question there are people out there who don’t believe that the nation has changed, or who don’t think that the changes are significant. This includes educators who believe that America is an evil country, even the most evil in the history of the world. Fortunately, most young people who are taught the Howard Zinn version of American history can see through it, or are easily helped to see that there is more to America than brutal racism and exploitation; and teenagers’ glee in doing whatever will most annoy their parents and teachers can result in their breaking with the politics of airheads who play at having been Sixties radicals.

 Robert Parker touches on all these themes, sometimes through his characters, sometime through the rather rough humor of his main characters. If you know what “Chemo Savvy” means, you’ll follow the plot. As for myself, I grew up in an even earlier era, when it was “Kemo Savvy.” But all things change, except those that don’t.

Robert Parker died last year. We will miss him.



Review Atlas (May 19, 2011), 4.