Books live forever. Authors, sadly, do not.
Robert B. Parker has been my favorite novelist since 1977, when I checked out Mortal Stakes, the third novel in his now-legendary series of books featuring the one-named private detective Spenser, from the Novato High School library and immediately fell in love. (In a purely platonic and literary sort of way.) I quickly went back and read the two preceding novels in the skein, The Godwulf Manuscript and God Save the Child.
My life has never been the same.
Parker ultimately wrote more than 50 novels, 37 of which feature Spenser — a character which spawned a television series and two separate batches of made-for-TV feature-length films. (More about these later.) Not content with that success, in recent years Parker created two more popular detectives: Jesse Stone, the alcoholic former baseball player-turned-L.A. cop who becomes police chief in the tiny (fictional) Massachusetts town of Paradise; and Sonya “Sunny” Randall, a petite, blonde female investigator (Parker created Sunny to be played onscreen by actress Helen Hunt, in a project that never materialized).
When not writing mysteries, Parker also put his hand to Westerns (his novel Appaloosa was recently made into a worthwhile film starring Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen, and Renee Zellweger) and non-series crime fiction. My favorite of his one-shot books, Double Play, focuses on a tough guy named Burke who’s hired by Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers to be Jackie Robinson’s bodyguard during the barrier-breaking athlete’s rookie season in the major leagues.
Early in his career, Parker was frequently compared to Raymond Chandler, the seminal American detective novelist. (Parker, in fact, was commissioned by Chandler’s estate to complete the late author’s unfinished Philip Marlowe story, Poodle Springs. He also wrote an entirely original sequel, entitled Perchance to Dream.) Quickly, though, Parker evolved his own style — terse, breezy, fast-paced, light on plot, and rife with punchy dialogue. His prose became less musical than Chandler’s, but also lacked his predecessor’s ponderous edge. I always thought Parker wrote a lot like Hemingway might have, if Hemingway drank less and possessed a sense of humor.
Parker’s work electrified the once-moribund hard-boiled detective genre, spawning a tsunami of disciples and imitators. (Some of whom, such as Robert Crais and Harlan Coben, turned out to be much better writers than Parker… but you always have to credit the guy who got there first.) Not only did he redefine the style and sensibility of the American private eye novel, Parker also established (in the fourth Spenser book, Promised Land) one of its most recognizable tropes — the silent-but-deadly sidekick — in the person of Hawk, Spenser’s enigmatic comrade-in-arms. (Crais’s Joe Pike and Coben’s Win Lockwood, along with innumerable other characters less effectively framed, owe their very existence to Hawk.)
As his work gained popularity, Parker developed a Hollywood connection that would define the latter half of his career. In the late 1980s, ABC Television produced Spenser: For Hire, a primetime action drama starring Robert Urich and a pre-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Avery Brooks, which ran for three seasons. After the series’s cancellation, Urich and Brooks went on to reprise their roles in several TV films — these grew progressively worse as the budgets got tighter. (Brooks would also star in a deservedly short-lived ABC spinoff, A Man Called Hawk, whose connection to Parker’s novels was tenuous at best.)
Parker had minimal input into the TV versions of his characters — he famously resented the casting of the boyishly handsome Urich as the rugged ex-prizefighter Spenser — but enjoyed the royalty paychecks nonetheless. Eventually, the entire concept received a Parker-approved reboot via a trio of teleflicks produced for the A&E cable channel, this time with veteran actor Joe Mantegna in the lead role. (I never quite understood why Parker preferred the diminutive, distinctly Italian-in-heritage Mantegna as his burly Irish-American hero — Urich, at least, had the physical presence if not the acting chops — but there’s no accounting for tastes.) The low-rent Mantegna films flopped, rarely appearing even in reruns.
Over the past few years, Tom Selleck has assumed the role of Parker’s other hero, Jesse Stone, in several telefeatures for CBS. Selleck, ironically, was Parker’s first choice for a never-made theatrical Spenser film, before the ’80s Urich series. (As fine an actor as Selleck is, I don’t love him as Jesse Stone, who in the books is in his mid-30s — about half Big Tom’s present age.)
Critics knocked Parker, especially during the latter half of his career, for his increasingly sparse plotting. (Many of the Spenser books are “mysteries” in name only, in the sense that the focus of the stories is rarely “whodunit.”) For his fans, however, Parker’s work was never about plot, but rather about his characters. Those of us who have been reading about Spenser, Hawk, and Susan (Silverman, Spenser’s longtime relationship partner, whom he meets in the second novel) feel as though they are real people, and that we know them as intimately as we know folks in the real world. The same can be said, albeit to a lesser degree, about Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall and their respective supporting casts. While often providing few — and in truth, contradictory — details about their lives (i.e., Spenser famously refers to memories of his mother in a couple of Parker’s early books, memories later retconned out of existence when the author subsequently decided that Spenser’s mother died in childbirth), Parker made the reader believe that his characters lived and breathed and pondered the vagaries of life.
Certain themes recur frequently in Parker’s fiction. Chief among these could be described as machismo — the unwritten code of masculine honor to which all of his heroes (including the female Sunny Randall) subscribe. (I told you before: Hemingway with a sense of humor.) By way of contrast, Parker was also one of the first writers of hard-boiled fiction to frequently feature gay characters in a positive light — Lee Farrell, a Boston police detective, and Tedy Sapp, a bouncer and occasional Spenser backup, are minor recurring characters in the Spenser books who are openly gay, as is Sunny Randall’s best friend and confidant Spike. One of the early Spenser novels, Looking for Rachel Wallace, centers on a feminist author and activist who is by her own acknowledgment a “militant lesbian” — Rachel reappears as a trusted associate later in the series. (Parker’s two sons are both gay, and his son Daniel portrays Lee Farrell in one of the Mantegna-era Spenser movies.)
Even more notably, Parker’s lead characters are in some degree defined by their conflicted relationships with their significant others. Spenser and Susan’s partnership is briefly interrupted early in the series when she leaves him for another man, an event which culminates in the atypical novel A Catskill Eagle. Both Jesse and Sunny have ex-spouses with whom they are still in love, but can’t for various reasons sustain a committed relationship with. (It’s said that Parker and his wife Joan themselves had an unusual marriage, living together in the same house, but in separate quarters.)
Parker’s personal interests often colored his fiction. You didn’t have to read many of his novels to know that Parker loved cooking (Spenser was a kitchen gourmet at a time when that would still have been considered unmanly), physical exercise (one of his few nonfiction works is a primer on weight training), literature (Spenser’s dialogue, in particular, is loaded with literary allusions — Parker held a Ph.D. in English, and was formerly a professor at Northeastern University), and dogs (Parker’s book jacket photos frequently pictured him with his German shorthaired pointer, the model for Spenser and Susan’s Pearl in the later-period books; Sunny and Jesse both also own canine companions).
It’s sad to think that there won’t be many new tales of all of my old friends forthcoming. A new Jesse Stone novel is set for release in a few weeks — it’s already on my Kindle wish list. I don’t know the status of the next Spenser book (Parker had unleashed a new Spenser more or less annually since the mid-’70s), or whether there’s another Sunny story in the pipeline. I’ll just have to content myself with rereading the existing books, most of which hold up just fine for second and third reviews.
It’s even more sad that I’ll never know Spenser’s first name.