Robert B. Parker
(1932--2010)

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 atempt 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. that has still 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 or some psycho-killer nympho. He 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 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's continued to write Spenser novels, a novel or three a year, and each has made its way up the charts. It's 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 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 seems to be the most recurring complaint. He seems to just rub many folks the wrong way. He refuses to romanticize writers (he's been known to ponder why plumbers never come down with plumber's block), and he seems impervious to criticism. He doesn't suffer fools gladly, yet he's 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 is, 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's never been one to rest on his laurels. He continues 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. At an age when most writers slowed down or stopped 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.

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, and 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.

We'll miss him.

UNDER OATH

  • "Disliking (someone's) writing is one thing -- ignoring history is another. I am not a huge Robert B. Parker fan, but he is important, and a lot of us in the 1980s and 90s were able to sell private eye novels because Bob Parker led the way."
    -- Max Allan Collins, The January Magazine Interview
    .
  • "Last week I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time listening to some of the best contemporary crime writers discuss their work at a conference in the Bahamas. Parker's Spenser novels were mentioned repeatedly as a major influence on many of these writers (it was also frequently stated, to be fair, that the early books were far superior to the more recent ones.) My opinion is that the countless imitations of the Spenser books -- and there are many -- have tarnished our perception of the originals. We're tired of Spenser's sons so we're tired of Spenser. Put it in another context: a young person looking at Bullitt or The French Connection today might yawn at "just another car chase," but those car chases were groundbreaking and mind-blowing at the time of their release."
    --George Pelecanos, author of A Firing Offense, Right As Rain, etc., from a post to Rara-Avis, from 12/14/2000)

  • "To me, (Early Autumn) shows the modern mystery at its finest -- a true novel."
    --
    Robert Crais, Winter 2005, B&N.com interview

  • "I read Parker's Spenser series in college. When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."
    --
    Harlan Coben, August 2007, The Atlantic

NOVELS

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.............

SHORT STORIES

BOOKS BASED ON PARKER'S CHARACTERS BY OTHER AUTHORS

TELEVISION

  • THE PROMISED LAND
    (1985, ABC)
    2-hour pilot for series
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    and Avery Brooks as HAWK
    .
    ..
  • SPENSER FOR HIRE
    (1985-88, ABC)
    Television series
    Three seasons, 64 60-minute episodes
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    Starring
    Robert Urich as SPENSER
    and Avery Brooks as HAWK
    .
    ..
  • B.L. STRYKER: BLUES FOR BUDER
    (May 15, 1989, ABC)
    Made-for-TV movie
    B.L. Stryker created by Christopher Crowe
    Written by Joan H. Parker & Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Burt Reynolds
    Starring Burt Reynolds as B.L. Stryker
    Guest stars: Elizabeth Ashley, Neil Patrick Harris, Michael Chiklis
    .
  • B.L. STRYKER: HIGH RISE
    (March 10, 1990, ABC)
    Made-for-TV movie
    B.L. Stryker created by Christopher Crowe
    Written by Joan H. Parker & Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Nick McLean
    Starring Burt Reynolds as B.L. Stryker
    Guest stars: Julianne Moore, Ricardo Montalban
    ..
  • SPENSER: CEREMONY...Buy this video....Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    ....
  • SPENSER: PALE KING AND PRINCES...Buy this video....Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    .
    ..
  • SPENSER: THE JUDAS GOAT....Buy this on DVD
    (1994, Lifetime)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    .
    .
  • SPENSER: A SAVAGE PLACE....Buy this on DVD
    (1995, Lifetime)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman
    .
  • SMALL VICES ..Buy this video
    (June 1999, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Robert Markowitz
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    with Shiek Mahmud-Bey as HAWK.
    .
  • THIN AIR
    (September 2000, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Robert Mandel
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    and Marcia Gay Harden as Susan
    Also starring
    Jon Seda, Yancy Butler, Eugene Lipinski
    .
  • WALKING SHADOW
    (2001, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Robert B. Parker and Joan Parker
    Directed by Po-Chih Leong
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    Marcia Gay Harden as Susan
    and Ernie Hudson as Hawk
    Also starring
    Eric Roberts, Tamlyn Tomita, Mackenzie Gray, Christopher Lawford, Ronin Wong, Chang Tseng, Henry Mah, Rick Tae, Scott Wickware, Alex Zahara
    .
  • MONTE WALSH
    (2003, Turner Network Television)
    Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer
    Teleplay by Michael Brandman, Robert B. Parker, David Z. Goodman and Lukas Heller
    Directed by Simon Wincer
    Produced by Steven J. Brandman
    Associate producer: John Albanis
    Co-executive producer: Michael Brandman
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck
    Starring Tom Selleck, Isabella Rossellini, Joanna Miles, Keith Carradine, James Gammon, Barry Corbin, George Eads, William Devane, William Sanderson, Marshall R. Teague, Lori Hallier, Mary Wilder
    TV remake of old western.
    .
  • STONE COLD ..Buy this DVD
    (2005, CBS)
    Premiere: Sunday, February 20, 2005
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Michael Brandman and John Fasano
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Produced by Tom Selleck
    Associate producer: John Albanis
    Executive producer: Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Mimi Rogers, Jane Adams, Viola Davis, Alexis Dziena, Michael Fox, Brian Heighton, Stephen McHattie, Vito Rezza, Shawn Roberts, Reg Rogers, Cindy Sampson, Polly Shannon, Kohl Sudduth
    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.

  • NIGHT PASSAGE ...Buy this DVD
    (2006, CBS)
    Premiere: January 15, 2006
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Tom Epperson
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Stephen Baldwin, Stephanie March, Polly Shannon, Saul Rubinek, Viola Davis, Kohl Sudduth, Vito Rezza, Stephen McHattie, John Beale, Orla Brady, Gary Basaraba, John Diehl, Debra Christofferson, Mae Whitman, Maria Brooks

  • DEATH IN PARADISE ...Buy this DVD
    (2006, CBS)
    Premiere: April 30, 2006
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Michael Brandman, J.T. Allen and Tom Selleck
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Viola Davis, Kohl Sudduth, Vito Rezza, Stephen McHattie, John Beale, Orla Brady, Gary Basaraba, John Diehl

  • SEA CHANGE ...Buy this DVD
    (2007, CBS)
    Premiere: May 22, 2007
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Ronni Kern
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom
    Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Kathy Baker, William Sadler, Sean Young, Rebecca Pidgeon, Viola Davis, Kohl Sudduth, Vito Rezza, Stephen McHattie, John Beale, Saul Rubinek, William Devane

  • THIN ICE ...Buy this DVD
    (2009, CBS)
    Premiere: March 1, 2009
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Michael Brandman
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Jeremy Akerman, Fulvio Cecere, Leslie Hope, Kathy Baker, William Sadler, Kohl Sudduth, Stephen McHattie, John Beale, Saul Rubinek, William Devane
    A once-promising series starts to falter...

  • NO REMORSE)..Buy the DVD
    (2010, CBS)
    Premiere: May 9, 2010
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Michael Brandman
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producer: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck, as JESSE STONE
    Also starring Jeremy Akerman, Kathy Baker, William Sadler, Kohl Sudduth, Stephen McHattie, John Beale, Saul Rubinek, William Devane
    The title might be the producers' response to fans' reaction to the series, as it strays from the Parker canon.

  • INNOCENTS LOST)..Buy the DVD
    (2011, CBS)
    Premiere: May 22, 2011
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Tom Selleck and Michael Brandman
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producers: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Kathy Baker, Kohl Sudduth, William Devane, Stephen McHattie, Saul Rubinek,William Sadler, Gloria Reuben, Mark Blum, Jeff Geddis, Eileen Boylan.
    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.

  • BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT)..Buy the DVD
    Premiere: May 20, 2012
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman and
    Directed by Robert Harmon
    Executive producers: Tom Selleck, Michael Brandman
    Starring Tom Selleck as JESSE STONE
    Also starring
    Kathy Baker, Kohl Sudduth, William Devane, Stephen McHattie, Saul Rubinek Gloria Reuben, William Sadler, Robert Carradine, Jeff Geddis, Jeremy Akerman
    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?

ALSO OF INTEREST

.........

  • 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 (1971; by Robert B. Parker)
    Parker's doctoral thesis.

  • "Spenser's Boston" (1988; Spenser's Boston)....Buy this book
    By Kasho Kumagai
    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.

  • The Robert B. Parker Companion (2005)....Buy this book
    Edited by Dean
    James and Elizabeth Foxwell
    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.

  • "Spenser" (2009, The Line-Up)
    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.

  • In Pursuit of Spenser (2012)
    Edited by Otto Penzler... Buy this book!
    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 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.

RELATED LINKS

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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