Looking for Robert B. Parker

A Fond Farewell to the Man Who Saved P.I. Fiction
By Cameron Hughes

I just always assumed that detective novelist Robert B. Parker was immortal, like some kind of literary Highlander.

It was actually easy to think so. Writing three books a year, he always seemed to have a new one out or on its way. It became a running joke when I would make my excursions to the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, asking whether there was a fresh Parker novel to be had. (There usually was, though not as often as there was a new James Patterson.) It makes complete sense to me, that when he passed away suddenly on January 18, Parker was sitting at his desk, working on another book.

Look, I don’t want to bore you with the details of his upbringing, all that stuff about Parker having been a working-class kid in Massachusetts who grew up to be an academic; there are lots of obituaries to give you that. Instead, I want to talk about why he was a great writer and the most influential crime novelist of the last four decades (other than Elmore Leonard, that is).

It’s my pet theory (so disagree, if you like) that Parker’s perfectly deserved success actually hurt his status in the crime-fiction community. Our tribe loves the little guy, and when you get a bunch of well-read fans together, the conversation inevitably leads to who everybody else should be reading (the more obscure the better), because word of mouth is the best kind of advertising. As an author in this genre, you can make it big, and nobody will begrudge your achievements; but if you get too big, if–heaven forbid–somebody outside of the crime-fiction-loving community should recognize your name, or your books should become easily available at airport bookstores… well, then you risk censure. It’s a wonder that we haven’t turned on Michael Connelly, or that there hasn’t already been a Raymond Chandler backlash.

Go ahead and criticize Parker for his prolificacy, or the thinness of some of his tales. It doesn’t alter the fact that without him, private-eye fiction would be nowhere near as popular as it is today.

Dashiell Hammett and Chandler gave the genre its strongest foundations. Ross Macdonald built upon those in the 1960s and ’70s. But Hammett stopped writing novels way back in 1934, Chandler died in 1959, and Macdonald ceased penning his books about Los Angeles gumshoe Lew Archer in the mid-70s, brought low by Alzheimer’s before perishing himself in 1983. Plenty of critics at the time were talking about how detective fiction was on its last legs, burdened by clichés.

Enter Parker, who was a professor at Northeastern University in Boston before he turned to composing detective stories. He’d written his Ph.D. dissertation on Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald, so he knew the field well, and loved that Holy Trinity of genre fathers. He wanted to write something on the order of the books they’d produced. But with his own modifications, of course; and with a private investigator in the lead who had other things on his mind than killing criminals and bedding femmes fatales. Given Parker’s literary background, it was hardly surprising that he would name his first fictional Beantown private eye after a 16th-century English poet.

Ex-state trooper, boxer, weightlifter, and gourmet cook Spenser (introduced in 1973’s The Godwulf Manuscript) often reeled off poetic passages to folks who assumed he was just a muscle-bound thug. There are dozens of literary references in Parker’s books.

Parker didn’t save the P.I. subgenre by writing like the Holy Trinity (for the most part, he didn’t). He saved it by being an innovator. Up until the mid-’70s, the private dick of fiction was a cynical loner, his life devoted to whatever case had just come his way. The Big Three, who’d created and shaped this formula, were great wordsmiths–but how much did readers ever find out about the personal lives of their protagonists? Not a whole hell of a lot. Parker was instrumental in setting new standards. Spenser had friends, a huge group of them, all memorable. He watched baseball and the fights, drank beer and Scotch, and appreciated fine food. As dictated by Chandler in his 1944 essay,The Simple Art of Murder,” Spenser was a common man, but an unusual one, with a rigid code of ethics.

Parker gave his man a real-seeming life. We were invited to see inside Spenser’s apartment. We spent intimate hours with him and his lover, high-school guidance counselor-turned-psychologist Susan Silverman. (The fact that Parker wrote his Spenser novels from the sleuth’s first-person point of view made getting inside Spenser’s head, understanding his behavior, easier.)

And we got to hang out with the detective and his African-American leg-breaker of a sidekick, Hawk, as they worked out, worked investigations, and just bullshitted like good friends. Indeed, it was those quieter moments that made Parker famous. His dialogue sang. The man was funny. In this excerpt from Ceremony (1982), Spenser wheels by to pick up Hawk:

I pulled the MG in beside him at the curb and he got in.

“This thing ain’t big enough for either one of us,” he said. “When you getting something that fits?”

“It goes with my preppy look,” I said. “You get one of these, they let you drive around the north shore, watch polo, anything you want.”

I let the clutch in and turned right on Dartmouth.

“How you get laid in one of these?” Hawk said.

“You just don’t understand preppy,” I said. “I know it’s not your fault. You’re only a couple generations out of the jungle. I realize that. But if you’re preppy you don’t get laid in a car.”

“Where do you get laid if you preppy?

I sniffed. “One doesn’t,” I said.

“Preppies gonna be outnumbered in a while,” Hawk said.

It doesn’t detract from our intimate association with these two, that we never learn in the books whetherHawk” is a first name, a last name, or just a nickname. Or what Spenser’s given name might be. (As Wikipedia explains, “Parker and his wife [Joan] had two sons, David and Daniel. Originally, Parker’s character Spenser was to have the first name ‘David,’ but he didn’t want to omit his other son. So Parker removed the first name completely…”

Creating Hawk turned out to be a genius move on Parker’s part. Hawk is the total opposite of the conventional detective hero, yet together he and Spenser seem to make up a satisfying whole. Hawk gets away with actions that most gumshoes never could, such as shooting an unarmed, unconscious man in the head. It was part of his character, even if such brutal acts lie outside the legal limits of what conventional detectives might do. The idea that Parker effectively divided his gumshoe into two people–one law-abiding, the other not so much, working side by side–is often not recognized, as readers concentrate on the surface elements of Spenser and Hawk as individuals. Yet they have one of the greatest and most influential friendships in the history of fiction. You can’t hit a P.I. novel with a rock nowadays, without that work featuring some detective’s sociopathic sidekick. Bubba Ragowski, Win Lockwood, Joe Pike–they’re all Hawk’s illegitimate children. Over the years, it’s gotten to the point where such sidekicks have become clichÈs. Even Parker’s second Boston P.I., Sunny Randall (introduced in 1999’s Family Honor), had to have such a single-monikered associate, the malevolent gay restaurateur, Spike.

Reading Parker’s fiction, it was fairly easy to accept Spenser as a human being. We were in his head all the time, and he could be surprisingly introspective. He didn’t always triumph, either. Sometimes people he was struggling to help died or were hurt. Spenser got hurt, too, more than once. In some books, the best Spenser could do was achieve a Pyrrhic victory. Nonetheless, I loved the optimistic message.

In Parker’s books: If you lend a hand and do your part, things will be OK. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was a cynic, without hope for humanity. Hammett’s protagonists could be even worse. Spenser loved people and wanted to help them.

The author was a softy and a romantic (he dedicated all of his books to wife Joan and their sons). His best-known protagonist, while noticeably bigger and braver than his creator, shared those same characteristics. In Spenser’s eyes, Susan Silverman was everything good and important in the world, and God help you if you hurt her, and either Spenser or Hawk found out about it. Susan was also Spenser’s equal; she could spar with him on a number of levels, and she felt more genuine than do many women characters given birth by male crime-fictionists. In a lot of respects, Parker was a feminist. Hell, Susan was the real bread-winner in their relationship, while the detective (who’d been taught to cook by his father and two carpenter uncles, who reared him) did the majority of food preparation. While many devotees of the Spenser series couldn’t stand Susan Silverman, with her little anal mannerisms and the way Spenser worshipped her, and they wanted the author to kill her off (preferably in a way that demonstrated their own contempt), Parker refused to consider the idea. Personally, I thought the relationship between the sleuth and the shrink was rather sweet. (Haven’t you ever been equally annoyed by the way friends behave with their partners? ) Consider this passage from Paper Doll (1993):

I never saw Susan without feeling a small but discernible thrill. The thrill was mixed with a feeling of gratitude that she was with me, and a feeling of pride that she was with me, and a feeling of arrogance that she was fortunate to be with me. But mostly it was just a quick pulse along the ganglia which, if it were audible, would sound a little like woof.

That Spenser made himself vulnerable to Susan, and that she seemed to be the only one who could consistently fetch warmth from the hulking Hawk, gave all of them more dimensions and humanness.

Parker won his only Edgar Allan Poe Award (in the Best Novel category) for 1976’s Promised Land, which was all about how men think, and their masculinity, and the codes they live by. Mortal Stakes (1975) was another early winner. It’s about Spenser scrutinizing the behavior of a popular Red Sox pitcher who may be betting on his own games, and the family drama he stumbles onto in the course of that investigation–a drama that would have made Macdonald proud. In the end, Spenser questions his use of violence and how you know when you have gone too far.

But if you want to understand why so many readers were devoted to this author, you really must pick up a copy of Early Autumn (1981), in which Spenser is hired to protect a young boy, Paul Giacomin, from being kidnapped amid a parental custody quarrel. By the middle of that book, Spenser deduces that both parents are nuts, so he hauls Paul off on a camping trip to Maine, where they exercise, build a house, and, um, take in a little ballet on the side. These efforts aren’t to teach Paul to be a man so much as they are intended to teach him how to be an adult–seemingly the only one in his dysfunctional family. There’s some wonderfully tender writing in Early Autumn, and a smattering of barbs launched against the way modern society treats children.

The other best-remembered Spenser novel, Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), is a completely different beast. In that tale, he’s hired to protect a lesbian feminist author whose explosive book about sexism is about to be released. Rachel Wallace is contemptuous of Spenser’s notions about codes of honor and the necessary application of force. She tells him that she does not approve of violence, unless her life is in danger. She is right, of course: Spenser’s ideas are old-fashioned and don’t apply to everyone, and the times, they are a-changin’. Fed up with his behavior, Wallace fires our hero. Her subsequent kidnapping, though, leads Spenser back to her aid. It’s a powerful novel, and the climax is wonderful and cathartic. Parker was a scholar, and it showed. He tackled heavy topics like race, poverty, feminism, and gay sexuality, and he did it all with style.

Robert B. Parker’s spare, economical storytelling and distinctive characters have been imitated by dozens of writers over the years, but most of those copycats did a lousy job and ultimately vanished. The few who did win acclaim were able to do what Parker did: start with something familiar, and then innovate.

But even Parker wasn’t always at the top of his game. Somewhere in the 1990s–after he’d completed the last Philip Marlowe novel Chandler was working on when he passed away (Poodle Springs, 1989) and then written a sequel to Chandler’s 1939 first novel, The Big Sleep (Perchance to Dream, 1991)–his power slipped.

He still turned out some fine work (1994’s All Our Yesterdays, about a family of Boston cops, was a fabulous read), and the books still contained lots of humor, great dialogue, and memorable players. Something crucial was missing, though. That was a hard time to be a fan and convince others of Parker’s genius. In his defense, however, Parker never became a “factory writer” on the order of Tom Clancy or the aforementioned Patterson, men who are more famous for their names than their prose. He kept plugging along, doing what professional writers do, hoping to bounce back. And he finally did just that. In 1997 Parker launched into new territory with Night Passage, bringing forth another protagonist: Jesse Stone, an alcoholic former ballplayer and onetime Los Angeles homicide cop, who becomes a small-town Massachusetts sheriff.  Stone was a stoic and solitary man, dumped by his beautiful wife–a far cry from Parker’s warrior poet detective.

Just two years after debuting Stone, Parker rolled out Family Honor, the first of what would be half a dozen Sunny Randall books. Sunny is a woman in her 30s, who carries a torch for her mobbed-up ex-hubby, toys with becoming an artist, and turns to her retired cop father and more brutal uncle when she needs assistance on a case. However, she is probably best recognized for the reason she was originally created–as a character to be portrayed on-screen by one of Parker’s friends, Helen Hunt of Mad About You and As Good As It Gets fame. Somewhere along the line, the film franchise deal collapsed, but Parker stuck with his fictional female creation, even though she never rose to the popularity of either Spenser or Stone.

Looking for other challenges, Parker penned a historical crime novel about black baseball legend Jackie Robinson Double Play (2004). He also tried his hand at westerns. Gunman’s Rhapsody(2001) brought Old West legends Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterson back to life in the troubled town of Tombstone; and even though his portrayal of Earp–besotted with love for showgirl Josephine Marcus–owed a recognizable debt to Spenser, Gunman’s Rhapsody excited the public’s attention. Once again, Parker had changed his style, becoming more terse and tough. I don’t think he gets enough credit for his ability to alter his voice.

He went on to compose a short series of western novels featuring gunslingers Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. They were a hardy and funny pair, and their first book-length adventure, Appaloosa, 2005), was adapted by actor Ed Harris into a movie remarkably faithful to Parker’s book, in which he co-starred with Viggo Mortensen. This was not Parker’s first foray into other media, of course. In the late-1980s, ABC-TV broadcast Spenser: For Hire, based on the Spenser books. Although the show had its weaknesses, it is fondly remembered by many, especially for Avery Brooks’ spot-on performance as the menacing Hawk.

Spenser, too, enjoyed a comeback. School Days (2005), the 32nd entry in that series, was an intelligent and somber story about the Boston shamus looking into a tragic school shooting. I think it was as good as any books he wrote in his 1970s and ’80s prime, and seemed to re-energize him. The later Spenser books were all pretty good.

Even though the author is now gone, there are still a few more of his books in the publishing pipeline, including a fifth western, Blue-Eyed Devil (due out in May 2010), and the 39th Spenser adventure, Painted Ladies (due for release in September). So his fans won’t have to adapt immediately to a world without any new Parker works. But they will eventually–I hope. I’d hate to see happen to Parker what happened to V.C. Andrews, Mario Puzo, and Robert Ludlum: that some publishing “genius” decides to carry on his series, ghost-written by other, less-talented writers. That would be an insult to one of the most important crime writers who ever lived.


Report respectfully submitted by Cameron Hughes. This article originally appeared in The Rap Sheet in January 2010, shortly after Robert Parker passed away. Used with permission. The photo is credited to John Earle of The Associated Press. That one I didn’t get permission for, but I hope it’s okay.

Leave a Reply