Robert B. Parker
Well, the guy had balls, anyway.
It's one thing to be compared to Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. It's another to step into Chandler's shoes, and finish the last Philip Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which Parker did in 1989.
Mind you, Parker -- despite his protestations -- never played it safe. And it was always clear what he was aiming for. He wrote his dissertation for a Ph.D. in 1971 on Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald, and his private eye hero, Spenser, was always more than just an attempt to carry on those beloved private eye traditions; it was also a brave, unapologetic no-holds barred attempt to drag those traditions, kicking and screaming, into the modern age.
Traditionalists and fedora fetishists were quick to denounce him, and he was certainly the victim of more than a few fellow writers' gripes (or even grapes), but Parker's Spenser, like it or not, left the biggest mark on the genre in ages. Certainly none of his contemporaries, even those who are arguably better writers, have had as much influence on the genre in terms of popularity and impact.
As Robert Crais, the creator of California private eye Elvis Cole, put it upon learning of Parker's death, "There has always been a Big Three in American detective fiction--Chandler, Hammett, and Macdonald. Now there is a Big Four, and deservedly so. Robert B. Parker influenced a generation of writers. His contributions will continue to influence the coming generations. A tragic and terrible loss."
* * * * *
Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Mass. on September 17, 1932, the only child of Carroll and Mary Pauline Parker. He and Joan Hall met as children, and again as freshmen at Colby College in Maine. Parker earned a B.A. in English in 1954, served as infantryman in Korea, and married Joan upon completing his service on August 26, 1956. In 1957 he earned an M.A. in English from B.U.
He worked a variety of jobs for the next five years: management trainee, technical writer, copy writer, ad exec. In 1962, with Joan's encouragement, he enrolled in B.U.'s Ph.D program hoping a professorship would give him more time to write. Between 1964-68 he taught at Mass State College--Lowell, Suffolk U., and Mass State College--Bridgewater. In 1968 he joined Northeastern U. as an Assistant Prof. of English. He completed his Ph.D in 1971, his doctoral thesis entitled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage, and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald". At first he alternated teaching and writing, even as the first spenser novels began to appear, to much popular and critical acclaim. He continued teaching at Northeastern until 1978, when he left to write full time.
He's remained an avid weightlifter and runner despite being slowed by recent surgery. Though Spenser is a boxer and gourmet cook, Parker doesn't box, and is more modest about his cooking.
Joan has a M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education and Development from Tufts. Their sons David and Dan were born in 1959 and '63 respectively. David is a choreographer, Dan an actor.
Parker did use his experiences as raw material, but I wouldn't call his books autobiographical. Wish fulfillment, maybe, is how he put it.
* * * * *
Parker's first four novels, which introduced Spenser, were an explosive opening salvo in the P.I. genre that has yet to be matched. Here was a P.I. who wasn't a California-bound loser and loner, who actually enjoyed his life, and was capable, it seemed, of having an actual relationship with a woman who wasn't a ditzy housewife, his own secretary or some psycho-killer nympho. As Margaret Cannon of The Globe and Mail once famously put it, "Spenser liberated the PI from California, gave him a whole new line of inquiry, and taught him to love."
Spenser could be as cold and ruthless as Hammer, but as chivalric as Marlowe, and as plain spoken as The Continental Op. He jogs, keeps himself in shape, cooks gourmet meals, and pals around at the gym with a legbreaker for the mob, Hawk, who isn't bothered by Spenser's idealogical struggles, and will gladly kill (and does) without hesitation or compunction. Spenser's beholden to no one, fiercely independent, almost obsessed with autonomy, and yet extremely loyal to his friends.
If Parker had stopped there, he would still be worthy of mention. But he didn't stop there. He continued to write Spenser novels, a novel or three a year, and each has made its way up the charts. It spawned a moderately successful (but disappointing) TV series, Spenser For Hire, starring Robert Urich, and a string of TV movies starring Urich (again) and later Joe Mantegna.
The Raymond Chandler estate asked him to complete Chandler's last, unfinished Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs. Parker took up the challenge, and in 1989 delivered it, following it up the next year with Perchance To Dream, his attempt to write a sequel to Chandler's first Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep. If Parker's success had already alienated him in the affections of many of his green-eyed peers, they must have seen this as the height of arrogance. Added to this was the fact that Parker's strong opening salvo was long over, and many of the subsequent books suffered by comparison. And yet here was Parker, plowing on, brazenly tampering with the Master's canon, storming the citadel while riding the master's horse!
In fact, it's Parker (and Spenser's) unapologetic confidence that seemed to be the most recurring complaint. He seemed to just rub many folks the wrong way. He refused to romanticize writers (he was known to ponder -- out loud -- why plumbers never come down with plumber's block), and he seemed impervious to criticism. He didn't suffer fools gladly, yet he was more than generous in praising other writers' work, both young and old (his brief, but heart-felt tribute to Ross Macdonald is one of the best, and most fair, pieces about Macdonald I've ever read).
But Parker long ago seemed to give up writing for anybody but himself and his fans. No, the Spenser books aren't all classics, but even the weakest books (and a few are mighty weak) in the series are eminently readable. Parker was, if nothing else, a great storyteller, and his light, breezy style is deceptive -- there are real hard questions often being asked in his work. Sure, sometimes his ambitions seem a bit lofty, or even pretentious, but he was never been one to rest on his laurels. He continued to pump out the Spensers, and has also written some damn good non-series tales, including 1983's Wilderness, a Deliverance-type tale; All Our Yesterdays, a multi-generational saga of an Irish family, its secrets and sins, and the violence it seems doomed to, and even a western, 2001's Gunman's Rhapsody that imagined Wyatt Earp's later years.
And he kept on chugging away. In his sixties, an age when most writers tend to slow down or even stop writing altogether, Parker kept going, pushing himself. Sure, he wrote a Spenser or two every year, but he never coasted -- in fact, the later Spensers don't have to apologize to anyone. They were solid and well-written and continued to push the envelope, continued to explore Parker's life-long literary themes of love, loyalty, friendship and honour with wit and heart.
And he kept on writing. In his later years he started two new crime series, one featuring Jesse Stone, a flawed, alcoholic California homicide detective who tries to start a new life for himself as the chief of police of a small town in Massachusetts (and became the basis for a popular series of TV movies starring Tom Selleck) and another series revolving around Sunny Randall, a female eye from Boston, which originated as a possible project for actress Helen Hunt.
In fact, presently, Jesse Stone may be Parker's best known creation, having sparked a string of very popular CBS TV movies starring fan favourite Tom Selleck, which in turn sparked the continuation of the novels after Parker's death by show writer Michael Brandman, who was subsequently replaced by Reed Farrel Coleman, Shamus-winning creator of Moe Prager.
He wrote an acclaimed standalone, Double Play (2004), that revolved around Joseph Burke, an ex-solder playing bodyguard to Jackie Robinson and published several YA novels, including Chasing the Bear (2009) which imagined Spenser's teenage years.
And just in case anyone thought he was slacking off, he started a very popular Western series featuring town-taming guns-for-hire Hitch and Cole, which spawned an honest-to-goodness Hollywood Western that didn't suck.
Late 2009 saw the publication of The Professional, the 39th Spenser novel. And then, in early 2010, Parker passed away and that great heart finally stopped beating.
He liked beer and he liked baseball, but when it was time to work, Parker sat down and got the job done. And in the act of doing that, he died -- as widely reported -- at his desk.
In the end, Parker was, like Spenser himself, a professional. But he had fun with it.
We'll miss him.
--George Pelecanos, from a post to Rara-Avis, from 12/14/2000)
-- Robert Crais, Winter 2005, B&N.com interview
-- Harlan Coben, August 2007, The Atlantic
BOOKS BASED ON PARKER'S CHARACTERS BY OTHER AUTHORS
The vreturn of Spenser to television, five years after the series was cancelled. Urich and Brooks reprise their roles in the first of four made-for-TV movies for the Lifetime network.
TV remake of old western.
A TV movie, based on the best-selling Jesse Stone series of novels by Parker, about the hard-drinking, hard-living small town police chief of Paradise, a small island town off the Massachusetts coast who, after a series of murders panic the town's residents, must pull his life together in order to track down the killer. Stars Tom Selleck (who was probably thinking franchise) and Mimi Rogers. The cast was better than the plot, but it was pretty good, all-round -- good enough, in fact, to continue as a series of TV movies.
A once-promising series starts to falter, as the series moves further away from Parker.
The title might be the producers' response to fans' reaction to the series, as it strays from the Parker canon. The last film to be based on a Parker novel.
Possibly the lamest one of them all; a cynical, repetitious hatchet job featuring a script that wasn't so much written as photocopied from previous episodes.
A slight improvement, but so slight as to be miniscule. Murder is committed, then there's a lot of moping, then the case is solved in the last few minutes. The guy who wrote the teleplay is the guy they chose to write the books, so you have to wonder if the title is supposed to be ironic?
More moping, without much else. The series has always been about tone and mood, which is fine, but the preposterous plot -- essentially, Jesse is so bored in Paradise that he goes to work for the nearby Boston PD to catch a serial killer -- is lame.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Parker's doctoral thesis.
A handsome but definitely pricey gift book by Japanese uber-fan and photographer Kumagai is a loving homage to Beantown, full of great shots of Boston and excerpts from the novels, plus "Spenser's Boston," a short piece by Parker, which features Spenser and Susan showing Rachel Wallace some local sites of interest. Reprinted in English by Otto Penzler Books in 1994.
Everything you always wanted to know about Robert B. Parker's novels -- from Spenser to Jesse Stone to Sunny Randall -- but were afraid to ask. Includes plot summaries, cast of characters, Boston locations, a omprehensive biography of Parker, his stand-alone fiction, memorable quotes, an inclusive bibliographyand a new interview with Parker himself.
Not really a short story -- more a vignette of Susan and Spenser being interviewed by a Harvard professor friend of Susan's for a book called Men Who Dare. The piece serves as a sort of profile of Spenser.
Fellow mystery writers, incuding Gorman, Block, Gary Phillips, Coleman, Collins, Rozan, Healy, Lehane, etc. on Robert B. Parker and the "creation of an American hero." In his intro, Penzler doesn't just make a case for Parker as the legitimate and worthy successor to the hallowed Hammett/Chandler/Macdonald trinity -- he states it as a matter of fact. And the whole thing is capped off by Parker's 2009 profile of Spenser that first appeared in The Line-Up.
Parker's official web site.
An essay by our own Gerald So.
Gone but not forgotten. This was a great, fun site, created in 1996 by Mike Loux, kept alive for a few more years by Bob Ames, and most recently, maybe being revived as the The Spenser Wiki, and still devoted to all things Spenserian.
My own valiant (but admittedly geeky) effort to trace the Spenser series through his brews of choice.
A little mutual backscratching gets graphic.
Tom Nolan's tribute from The Wall Street Journal, January 20, 2010.
Cameron Hughes' must-read intorduction to The Rap Sheet tribute. Reprinted, with permission.
The Rap Sheet's "Fond Farewell to the Man Who Saved P.I. Fiction." Includes Cameron Hughes' must-read introduction.
Respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Gerald So for plenty of the biographical info supplied here -- some of it taken from David Geherin's Sons of Sam Spade -- and for making sure I keep my nose clean.
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