"I am afraid that I am destined always to fall short of your kind of observation, Pons."
Accept as a given that the association of Solar Pons with Dr. Lyndon Parker proves a cross to bear for both men at times. On occasion, it seems, Pons must tolerate rather than embrace the foibles of his friend, who can be a surprisingly touchy companion, while the good doctor has apparently learned to bend rather than break under the lash of Pons' normally humorous jibes concerning an amateur's logical incompetence. Aspects of this unusual partnership intrigue, especially from the literary standpoint of how Parker is handled-- both by Pons and author-- throughout this vast collection of tales.
What kind of man is Parker, anyway? Is he a fit companion for Pons? Does Pons treat him fairly? Complicating the answers to such questions is the fact of the stories being composed by two successive writers, August Derleth and Basil Copper, who as I attempt to show do not always see eye to eye. Indeed, I argue for a kind of disjunction between the two sets of tales which, though minor, becomes quite glaring when one looks for it. In the following sections I deal with the character of Parker, and his treatment by Pons, as delineated by the twin fabricators of his life.
"I confess this is anything but clear to me." "I do not doubt it," said Pons dryly.
In creating his Watson clone August Derleth doesn't fool around, choosing to stick to the straight and narrow of a conventional characterization to which Conan Doyle would surely approve. Parker is a regular Englishman, stout and upstanding, well meaning albeit a little stiff-necked, expecting certainty and order in his world, seldom finding either during his adventures. The mysteries of Pons confound Parker because the latter isn't by nature accustomed to sifting clues toward the reality behind the wall of apparently unrelated observations, at which Pons of course excels. Exception is made for Parker's medical skills, which he has mastered via "textbook examples." So then, he is a by the numbers kind of guy.
Derleth's Parker serves appropriately as foil to Pons, standing in for we dunces of readers: eager to take part in and contribute to the adventures, he asks all the dumb questions-- meaning the right ones-- notices the obvious stuff, can be gently led to perceive, along with us, the not so obvious. As a rule, Parker serves Derleth as a means to an end for the advancement of plot. His character seldom imprints itself on a story; there are stretches, during the course of what is presented as Parker's narrative, that he virtually disappears from the scene, with his speaking parts minimized, while conversation goes on around him.
The give and take between Pons and Parker resolves itself into question and answer sessions, and banter. The former almost speaks for itself. With considerable prompting from his mentor, Parker holds his own pretty well, so long as all the big conclusions are left to Pons. For a typical case, think of their discussion of the murdered man's murky memo in Mr. Fairly's Final Journey. With plenty of nudging, Parker really does get the point of what it signifies, only fumbling at the end when he can't accompany Pons in his great mental leap. Parker isn't always that sound-- he does have his sluggish moments-- but often enough. His inability to make that last jump, though, often leaves him disgruntled, suspecting (despite all previous history) that his detective pal has this time overreached himself. This leads to obstinacy on his part, which must be broken down by further successive revelations.
It is their banter that illustrates the nature of their friendship. They do spar as old buddies will, with subtly malicious humor poking at one another. Parker relishes his opportunities to one-up Pons in trivial ways, especially over the latter's reputed prejudice against women. On the other hand, the doctor's recurrent admissions of incomprehension along the lines of "I must say, Pons, I failed to follow you," are commonly chased by such rejoinders as "Ah, that is not unusual at this stage," delivered in the same mocking but good-natured spirit. I can't think of a single instance of true meanness connected with that spirit in all of Derleth's oeuvre.
Noteworthy too is the matter of Parker's usefulness to Pons. Beyond his infinite capacity as sounding board, the doctor actually does come in handy in many cases, proving a valuable, occasionally necessary support for his friend. Weak ratiocination aside, Parker isn't prone to failing Pons. To the contrary, in a tight spot Parker invariably shines.
The consistency of Derleth's approach continues to impress me, perhaps even amaze. Consider over how long a span of decades these stories were written, and how many there are, and the number of related exchanges between the two men. It's as if Derleth has the formula down pat in his mind from the first and never, intentionally or otherwise, deviates.
"I do not follow you, Pons." "It would not be the first time, Parker."
Basil Copper, picking up where Derleth left off, hits the floor running with a series of stimulating mysteries, but the new designer of Pons and Parker is a very different kind of author from his too soon departed colleague. Where Derleth employs lean, sparsely worded prose to advance the intellectual aspects of the detective story, Copper leads with a penchant for atmospheric description and depth of characterization. His fewer stories are longer, replete with detailed incident, making the most of the interplay between brilliant hero and befuddled assistant.
What difference does it make? Well, for current purposes we may observe the development of a somewhat altered Lyndon Parker, with possibly commensurate changes in how Solar Pons treats him. This Parker, though somewhat more laid back than his previous cranky persona, can be more obtuse, more prey to failings surpassing his regular deductive lapses. Sad to admit, in certain distressing instances he isn't always the best man for the job at hand, nor is Pons always slow to point this out. Indeed, from the illustrious detective we may receive, in a few near unique moments, indications of impatience, even callousness, directed against his companion.
Necessarily much remains the same, and random perusal of the tales might not seem to bear out this argument, so let me home in here on those points of narrative in which Parker comes across as-- dare I say it-- downright foolish. Off hand three come to mind:
In "The Sealed Spire Mystery" Parker has ridiculous trouble remembering Pons' alias. Pons must caution him against mistakes, almost as he would a slow child. Fortunately this awkwardness has no ill effect on a superb story.
Parker's contretemps in "The Adventure of the Crawling Horror" and "The Adventure of the Horrified Heiress" do deleteriously impact the otherwise magnificent climaxes of those tales. In each case, Parker's stupidity involving his handling of guns leads to dangerous men acquiring weapons, and it is only by chance or author's fiat that tragedy doesn't result. Shouldn't Pons think twice before allowing his friend to tag along in future?
Then too, this Parker proves untimely in his clumsiness. His fidgety behavior is like to give the game away at critical moments in "The Adventure of Buffington Old Grange" and Solar Pons versus the Devil's Claw. As it happens he does no harm, but again solely by whim of Copper. One may imagine Pons admonishing the fellow to keep a grip on himself next time, if there is one.
As to Pons' behavior toward Parker, one might expect some harshness in connection with these occurrences, but there isn't really so much here; no, what I notice most are those other examples in which we see Pons rather thoughtlessly or maliciously abusing Parker. These are especially striking:
In "The Adventure of the Ipi Idol" Pons, in front of a client, pointlessly mocks Parker's casual stab at deduction. When the latter naturally protests against this as unfair, Pons glibly replies, "Life is unfair."
In "The Adventure of the Perplexed Photographer" Pons similarly, before a roomful of suspects, for no good reason detours from his analysis of the mystery to observe, in an aside, that Parker's views on the case are "childish and clumsy." It reads like a deliberate attempt to embarrass.
These cause me to wrinkle my nose briefly in the course of these wonderful tales, but an occasion drawn from Copper's weakest Pons offering, "The Adventure of the Ignored Idols," truly sinks that one. An uninspired case in the "super villain" vein, involving the less than interesting criminal LaFontaine, it reaches a climax when Parker comes upon one man assaulting another. Parker intervenes, decking the assailant, thus allowing the victim to escape, only to discover to his horror that the strange attacker is none other than Pons in disguise. "'You idiot, Parker!' said the voice of Solar Pons. 'You have let him get away!'" Yet Parker's action is entirely appropriate given his knowledge; as Pons does subsequently admit, it is his fault for not warning his assistant. That doesn't quite balance the books, though, for Pons' brief spit of venom rankles. I expect him, of all men, to keep a cooler head, even in extremis.
Bear in mind that I've been harping about a handful of sentences plucked from roughly a thousand pages of material. The discordant notes in Copper's corpus impress themselves on my mind mainly because such are almost entirely absent in Derleth's.
Having said all that, something I especially enjoy about this Parker is his enhanced capacity for verbally sparring with Pons. Copper's duo are in general a chattier pair, which gives Parker more opportunity to pleasurably illustrate himself. The doctor has discovered the snappy come-back, for which he loses no points from detective or reader:
"I thought you were supposed to be the detective, Pons."
My friend looked at me with eyes in which little flecks of irony were dancing.
"Touche, Parker. You are developing a very pretty wit of late. I must confess I am in turn developing a taste for it."
So, despite the occasional jarring moments alluded to above, all is well in the 7B Street household. I don't want to make too much out of this Derleth-Copper divide; it's there, true enough, but usually only stylistic, and both styles have their strong points. The Copper Parker normally convinces as the genuine article for good and ill, as we have grown to know him, with his most glorious moments-- such as when he saves his detective friend's life at the climaxes of the two Pons novels-- granted to us by both authors. Copper continues the Pons-Parker tradition, in short, its fabric tightly woven, with just a few seams showing here and there when he wanders from the "plan."
"I'm never too tired for an adventure-- but at this hour!"
Perhaps the differences in the two Parkers don't require explanation: two writers, two ways of the craft, leave it at that. I wonder, though, if one may deduce an elusive cause underlying this slight schism. One, probably not amenable to proof (at least nothing that would convince Inspector Jamison), involves the potential sources of the author's characterizations.
For August Derleth, I am tempted to state as fact, the sole source for his Dr. Lyndon Parker is the literary description of Watson as per Conan Doyle. That's it. When Parker springs upon the world in 1929 that's practically all Derleth goes by. He starts with that and, allowing for his own tiny twists, runs with it all the way for the next forty years. The many popular Holmes presentations during that long period do not impinge on Derleth's lovingly studious pastiches.
Basil Copper's pastiches of Derleth's, however, contain fleeting elements that may hint at another source. Various references through the years indicate a fondness for movies; indeed, the second author of the Pons tales is a notable collector. Might not he be a fan of the Universal films starring Basil Rathbone? If so, their influence might sink in, become part of the behind the scenes canon. Do we find, in the stories of Copper, traces of the humorous Watson persona as created by Nigel Bruce? At times I can see the new Parker in that light, picture him played by that actor, hear his voice as this Parker recites amusing lines. Is it just me (I'm definitely a fan of those movies) or is it Basil Copper too? It could be that tell-tale discoveries await.
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