Robert B Parker
Crime novelist of the 'Spenser' series of novels, who helped revive and modernise the private eye genre
Published 07/02/2010 | 05:00
Robert B Parker, the American crime novelist, who has died aged 77, helped revive and modernise the hard-boiled private eye genre through his Spenser series of novels.
Of Parker's 60 novels, 37 featured Spenser, a former Boston detective fired for insubordination, who was dubbed by Parker's admirers as "the thinking man's private eye". The character's first name was a permanent mystery, with his last name emphatically spelled with an "s" in the middle, rather than a "c", after Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene in the 16th century.
A one-time professor of English, Parker claimed stylistic descent from Raymond Chandler, the British-born master of hard-boiled crime fiction whose work he much admired; he also considered himself influenced by Hemingway, Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald.
But the derivative echoes of Chandler could sometimes transcend imitation and become parody, as in this vignette from Parker's 1997 Spenser novel Small Vices:
"'Can I get you some coffee?' she said. 'Or something stronger?'
'Coffee would be fine,' I said.
She unbuttoned the last button and shrugged out of her coat. Except for the high boots, she had nothing on under it.
'Or maybe something stronger,' I said."
"The debt to Chandler is so great," complained the British crime-fiction critic Julian Symons, "as to make the writing ludicrous at times."
Not that such strictures ever troubled Parker, who sold more than four million of his books worldwide.
Built like a fighter but harbouring the soul of a poet, Spenser made his debut in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). In this and other early novels in the series, Parker recreated the cool, clipped style of Chandler and other mystery writers such as Dashiell Hammett. With later titles -- for example Looking for Rachel Wallace and Early Autumn (both 1980) -- Parker was acclaimed as a master in his own right.
Although originally modelled on Chandler's Philip Marlowe, Spenser differed from him in several respects. Notably, in Promised Land (1976), Parker gave him a sidekick, a brutally efficient African-American (and former adversary) called Hawk, who became Spenser's best friend and de facto partner.
Parker's crime writing was noted for its style, mixing, as it did, lively, spare prose with wisecracks, flippant one-liners and literary allusions supplied by the well-read, poetry-quoting Spenser.
His themes ranged from feminist politics to feral youth gangs, as in Double Deuce (1992), which is set on a Boston housing estate plagued by drug dealers -- a recurring issue in Parker's work was the effect on children of broken relationships. He gave Spenser a long-term love interest of his own in Susan Silverman, a know-all psychotherapist whose insights highlighted Parker's concerns. The character is thought to have been based on Parker's own wife, Joan Hall Parker, who worked as a staff development specialist for the Massachusetts State Board of Education.
Parker was also known for his novels about Sunny Randall, a woman detective, and another series featuring Jesse Stone, a small-town police chief. His other books included a series of Westerns and Perchance to Dream, a sequel to Chandler's classic The Big Sleep.
In an interview in 1996, Parker underlined similarities between himself and Spenser. Both appreciated good food -- Spenser dined at Parker's favourite restaurants; liked baseball and jazz; were veterans of the Korean War; and both could throw a punch.
Parker said that typically he wrote 10 pages a day, never knew what would happen next, finished a book without revising it and then turned the manuscript over to his wife, Joan.
Robert Brown Parker was born on September 17, 1932, at Springfield, Massachusetts, the son of a telephone company engineer. At Dean Academy he read detective tales in pulp magazines, and in 1950 enrolled at Colby College, Maine, graduating in English in 1954.
After serving for two years as a radio operator with the US Army in Korea, he took jobs as a technical writer and as the co-owner of an advertising agency before receiving his PhD in English from Boston's Northeastern University in 1971. His dissertation was on Hammett and Chandler. Parker had joined the English faculty in 1968 as an assistant English professor, and it was while he was teaching there that he created Spenser, observing later that he was inspired in part because Chandler was dead and he missed his famous detective, Philip Marlowe.
In the late Eighties, Parker was chosen to complete a Philip Marlowe novel that Raymond Chandler had left unfinished at his death in 1959. To Chandler's opening four chapters, Parker added a further 37. The result, Poodle Springs (1989), impressed most of the critics, the novelist Ed McBain for one observing that "Parker sounds more like Chandler than Chandler himself".
Parker won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and a Grand Master Edgar in 2002 for lifetime achievement. A new Jesse Stone novel, Split Image, is due to appear next month, and several other books, including more Spenser novels, are in the pipeline.
Robert B Parker's wife, Joan, found him dead at his desk on January 18. She and their two sons survive him.