The “Spenser” detective series, wrote Anne Ponder in Armchair Detective, is “the best American hard-boiled detective fiction since Ross Macdonald and Raymond Chandler.”1 High praise, but Robert B. Parker (1932 – 2010) was a student of the genre before he became a master. Like Macdonald, Parker holds a doctorate in English and spent many years teaching in the university; his fiction is similarly informed by literary allusion and a concern for social justice.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts (Sept. 17,1932), Parker attended Colby College and served a tour in the U.S. Army in 1954-56. He received his M.A. (1957) and Ph.D. (1970) from Boston University, writing a doctoral dissertation on the detectives of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald as descendants of the heroes of James Fenimore Cooper. During this time Parker also worked as a management trainee, technical writer (Raytheon Corp) and advertising writer (Prudential and Parker-Farman, an agency). He taught part- and full-time at the University of Lowell, Massachusetts State – Bridgewater and Northeastern University, where he rose through the ranks to become a full professor in 1976. In academia he found time to write: “Being a professor and working are not the same thing,” he said. “The academic community is composed largely of nitwits. If I may generalize. People who don’t know very much about what matters very much, who view life through literature rather than the other way around.” 2
Parker’s first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript (1974), featured an ex-boxer, ex-cop hero, fired for insubordination, vintage Hammett/Chandler. Parker added an element of sensitivity, however, and gave Spenser a “perfect woman” for his girlfriend, so that he does not chase women. Parker followed with four more novels and resigned his professorship in 1979 to write full time. By this time he had developed “some of the snappiest and sauciest dialogue in the business,” wrote Jean M. White in Washington Post Book World. 3 He also anticipated the feminist surge by detailing Spenser’s monogamous relationship with psychologist Susan Silverman, which deepens from novel to novel. Indeed Parker was praised not only by feminists for his strong female figures, but by lesbians for Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), in which Spenser protects a lesbian author who is also an outspoken feminist. Parker is too honest to deny the influence of his university background: “It’s tempting to say the Ph.D. didn’t have an effect, but it’s not so. I think whatever resonance I may be able to achieve is in part simply from the amount of reading and learning that I acquired along the way.” 4
By 1998 there were twenty-five titles in the Spenser series, of which Promised Land (1976), The Judas Goat (1978), A Savage Place (1981) and A Catskill Eagle (1985) are considered the best of his early work. Parker considers the latter his masterpiece. A run of mediocre Spenser novels in the 1980s was broken by Pastime (1991) and Double Deuce (1992), which gives the clearest portrait of Hawk, Spenser’s assistant. Reviewers did not think as highly of the Spenser novels of the mid-1990s, except for Small Vices (1997), which some termed a comeback.
While reviewers sometimes score his plotting as weak, they praise his development of the hard-boiled hero, his repartee, and “slam-bang” action. “Spenser liberated the PI from California, gave him a whole new line of inquiry, and taught him to love,” wrote Margaret Cannon in the Toronto Globe and Mail. 5 So clearly was Parker the heir of the big three that the Chandler estate in 1988 asked him to finish a 30-page manuscript of the master, as well as to write a sequel to The Big Sleep. Given the poor quality of the original manuscript and the inevitability of comparison to the novel, these are projects Parker should not have taken. Critics pummeled him in print, especially for “a chaos of tawdry shortcuts” in the Chandler sequel Perchance to Dream (1991). 6
Spenser is also known for his talent in the kitchen, and a Robert Parker cookbook has long been planned. Details from Spenser’s recipes have been informally collected at this website. Parker drops lines from popular songs into his work frequently, referring more pointedly to a pop culture context than had any writer since Chandler. For these and other peculiarities Parker has become very popular overseas, especially in Japan, where he appeared in television commercials.
In addition to his detective series, Parker has written twenty-some other books, including four novels. All Our Yesterdays (1994), a historical novel of several generations, was praised as “thoughtful but structurally flawed.” 7 With his wife Joan, Parker wrote some (usually the initial episode of the season) of the scripts for the “Spenser: For Hire” television series that ran from 1985-88. They also worked on episodes of “B.L. Stryker” and four movies based on the Spenser television series. Film rights to many of the novels have been sold. Parker does not participate actively in these productions. In the 1990s Parker created two new detective, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randal, the latter reportedly at the behest of actress Helen Hunt, and to draw heavily on his private life in fictional parallels. The Spenser series are continued as well: Back Story (2003), Bad Business (2004), Cold Service (2005), School Days (2005), Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006) and Now and Then (2007).
Parker died suddenly of a heart attack at age 77. His last novel, and 40th Spenser, was Sixkill, published posthumously in 2011.
1 Anne Ponder, Armchair Detective, summer 1992, 343, in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 52, 350. 2 Robert B. Parker, ibid. 3 Jean M. White, Washington Post Book World, May 24, 1992, 6, in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 52, 351. 4 Robert B. Parker, interview, in Contemporary Authors 26, 312-16. 5 Margaret Cannon, in Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, vol. 52, 351. Original in Toronto Globe and Mail, n.p., n.d. 6 Martin Amis, Ibid. 7 Wendy Smith, Ibid.