Ed McBain (real name Evan Hunter) died in 2005, aged 78. Now Robert B Parker is dead at the age of 77. Between them, they were two of the most prolific crime fiction writers. Parker’s private eye Spenser was as popular as McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals.
Parker died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just across the river from his wisecracking PI’s happy stomping grounds in Boston. He had a heart attack, according to the New York Times.
With six to eight million books sold, he was one of the top 10 bestselling authors in the world, according to his longtime literary agent, Helen Brann, says the Washington Post.
Parker did his PhD in crime fiction and had been a professor of English at Northeastern University in Boston, reminds the Washington Post in loving homage to his achievements and his work ethic, which kept him writing five pages a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.
He was more popular than any other crime writer in the past quarter-century, says the Wall Street Journal in an excellent piece.
He has a new Jesse Stone novel coming out next month. The Professional was his 38th and last Spenser book, published last year.
The Los Angeles Times’ Jacket Copy notes:
Born in 1932 in Springfield, Mass., Parker wrote his PhD thesis on detective fiction and left a career teaching college English after his own writing became successful.
Parker hit it big with his Spenser series. Spenser was a classic tough-talking private eye, a former Boston boxer. Beginning with “The Gudwulf Manuscript” in 1973 and running through 2009’s “The Professional,” the Spenser series included almost 40 books.
It also spawned the television series “Spenser: For Hire,” which ran from 1985 to 1988, starring Robert Urich, at right, as Spencer; Avery Brooks played his compatriot, Hawk.
The New York Times says:
Mr. Parker wrote more than 60 books all told, including westerns and young adult novels, but he churned out entertaining detective stories with a remarkable alacrity that made him one of the country’s most popular writers. In recent years he created two new protagonists, Jesse Stone, an alcoholic ex-ballplayer turned small-town chief of police, who has been featured in nine novels since 1997 (including one to be published in February), and Sunny Randall, a fashion-conscious, unlucky-in-love, gun-toting female private eye. But it was Spenser, spelled “like the poet,” as the character is wont to point out — his first name is never revealed — who was Mr. Parker’s signature creation.
Witty, self-aware and a conscious throwback to hard-boiled detectives of the literary past like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Spenser is a bruiser in body and a softy at heart, someone who never shies from danger or walks away from a threat to the innocent. He is faithful in love (to his longtime companion, Susan Silverman, a psychologist) and in friendship (to his frequent partner in anti-crime, a dazzlingly charming, morally idiosyncratic black man named Hawk), and with those two at his side, he is seemingly indomitable, vanquishing crime bosses, drug dealers, sex fiends, cold-blooded killers, corrupt politicians and several other varieties of villain.
The Washington Post says:
Mr. Parker helped revive the detective fiction genre with his wise-cracking, street-smart and surprisingly literate Boston private-eye Spenser (no first name and with an “s” not a “c”). The character — an ex-boxer and ex-state policeman — is also a gourmet cook who grapples with his complex relationships with a witty female companion, an African American alter ego and a foster son. Named for Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare’s contemporary, the character and series became a favorite of the literati who enjoyed crisp, witty prose.
Mr. Parker’s work was notable for its quick pace, evocative descriptions, sharp dialogue and concentration upon themes that included the troubled status of adolescents, and of women in contemporary society. His protagonists, however, were tough guys, prone to violence, who nevertheless were true to a moral code as they protected a lesbian writer in “Looking for Rachel Wallace” (1980), chased after international terrorists in “The Judas Goat” (1983) and investigated drug smuggling in “Pale Kings and Princes” (1987) and “Pastime” (1991).
Mr. Parker wrote 65 books in 37 years, and was among the top 10 best-selling authors in the world, Brann said, with 6 to 8 million books sold. He was also the 1976 winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe Award, its 2002 Grand Master Award and Mystery Ink’s 2007 Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In addition to the “Spenser: For Hire” television series, which starred the late Robert Urich, Mr. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels became CBS television movies starring Tom Selleck starting in 2005. “Appaloosa,” his 2005 Western, was made into a 2008 movie directed by and starring Ed Harris.
A third fictional private-eye series, Sunny Randall, was created at the request of Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt, who asked Mr. Parker to write a novel with a female investigator. The first book did not become a feature film, but it was another bestseller.
His prodigious output was the result of a disciplined work ethic: He wrote five pages per day, five days a week, 50 weeks per year.
“I started writing the Jesse Stone novels because I realized that at this point in my career it takes me three to four months to write a Spenser novel and as a result I have a lot of time on my hands,” he told Bookreporter.com in 2000. His next book, “Split Image,” a Jesse Stone book, comes out next month, and he has turned in several books that have not yet been published, including some in the Spenser series, Brann said.
Robert Brown Parker was born Sept. 17, 1932, in Springfield, Mass., and graduated in 1954 from Colby College in Maine. He went into the Army for the next two years. He earned a master’s degree in 1957 and a doctorate in 1971, both in English from Boston University. His doctoral dissertation was a study of the private eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.
Mr. Parker earned his living as a technical writer at Raytheon, and in the advertising department at Prudential Insurance until the doctoral degree got him a full professorship at Northeastern University in Boston, where he began to write seriously. His first novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” sold within three weeks of completion. Over the next five years, Mr. Parker wrote four more Spenser novels, each increasingly successful. Finally in 1979, he was able to quit teaching and devote himself full time to writing.
So clearly and consciously did Mr. Parker consider himself an heir of Chandler, that the Chandler estate in 1988 asked him to complete a 30-page manuscript left uncompleted at Chandler’s death. The result was “Poodle Springs,” a novel that carries both authors’ names on its title page. It was panned by the New York Times Book Review as “a chaos of tawdry shortcuts.” Mr. Parker, who claimed not to read reviews of his work, nevertheless wrote a sequel to Chandler’s classic “The Big Sleep,” calling it “Perchance to Dream.”
Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Joan Parker of Cambridge, and two sons.
In interview after interview, Mr. Parker refused the opportunity to make the idea of writing detective fiction mysterious.
“The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction,” he told the Boston Globe magazine in 2007. “You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books.”
The Wall Street Journal says:
In American popular culture, the private detective is a unique heroic figure: champion of last resort for the vulnerable client, a knight-errant for hire, bringing rough or poetic justice to cases unserved by more official powers that be.
In the past quarter century, it could be said, no writer of private-eye fiction was more popular or prolific than Robert B. Parker, who died Monday at the age of 77. His nearly 40 books involving the no-first-name Boston P.I. Spenser—starting in 1973 with “The Godwulf Manuscript” and ending, it would see
m, with “The Professional,” published three months ago—made the Massachusetts-born Mr. Parker a best-selling author and a household-name in all homes where mystery fiction was consumed.
Building on aspects developed by illustrious predecessors (aspects he studied as the author of a doctoral dissertation on the private eye in American fiction)—the bantering dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the concern for young people expressed by Ross Macdonald, the swift action of Dashiell Hammett, even the violence of Mickey Spillane—Mr. Parker created a hero and a series of books that revivified the P.I. genre, making it fresh and viable through the end of the 20th century and into the next.
Spenser brought his own quirks and special experience to the traditional private-detective role: He was a good cook and, for the most part, a one-woman man. His closest associate was an African-American “enforcer” with whom he felt much in common. And the self-educated Spenser, like his well-educated creator, was surprisingly well-read—often quoting from the likes of Frost, Auden, Shelley, Shakespeare, and such popular songwriters as Kris Kristofferson and Matt Dennis.
But Spenser’s more fundamental nature was informed by that classic mixture of confidence, ability and courage—grace under pressure—that has characterized all American adventurer-investigators from James Fenimore Cooper’s day through our own.
The Boston detective also had a rueful, self-deprecating streak to balance his brash self-confidence. Of his presence at a cocktail party of smartly dressed and glamorous young types, the ex-amateur boxer and ex-football player said of his sport-coated self: “I felt like a rhinoceros at a petting-zoo.”
Spenser’s equally athletic creator sometimes also expressed a similarly endearing side, once telling a roomful of librarians, booksellers and readers: “Please buy my book. I’m too old to get a real job.”
But Mr. Parker—whose oeuvre also included series with a small-town sheriff, Jesse Stone, and a woman P.I. named Sunny Randall, as well as a handful of westerns and other novels—of course had a very real job, working five days a week turning out five pages a day. “It’s like running a small business,” he told fellow writer Stuart Kaminsky, adding: “‘Writer’s block? That’s just another word for ‘lazy.’”
“I like to make things,” the fictional Spenser told a fictional interviewer in 2007. “I know how to do it.” He had good carpentry skills, he said, and could build a house—as could (and had) Mr. Parker. No surprise then that the Spenser books were well-constructed, functional, and comfortable to spend time in.
Spenser himself seemed comfortable in his own skin, and in his own life. Asked “Is there anything you wanted to accomplish that you haven’t?” by a Harvard professor in that fictional interview written by Mr. Parker, the private eye answered: “No. I am everything I wanted to be. I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do. . . . I would be pleased to live this life and do what I do . . . forever. But I have no need to improve on it.”
Mr. Parker gave a reader all that was needed. He could set a scene in a few spare sentences and make you see it, as in these lines—from a piece in the recently published anthology, “The Lineup”—that describe a Boston afternoon: “It was one of those days in late June. The temperature was about 78. There were maybe three white clouds in the sky. The quiet breeze that drifted in from the river smelled fresher than I knew it to be.” Sense of place, overtones, undertones—the bare essentials, and just a bit more.
He wrote dialogue that at once informed, amused and gave a sense of character; and he conjured characters a reader wanted to spend more time with—especially Spenser, a fixed point in a footloose world, take him or leave him. A pragmatist whose ethics were situational. A tough and decent type who did what needed to be done in the service of a moral cause, affirming the worth of the individual regardless of race, sexual orientation, social status, age or occupation. He made timeless points that need to be remade every generation, in a society ever able to find ways to betray the public and private trust.
The books were addictive, entertaining, amusing—and, in their low-key way, moving. Critics prefer the earliest ones as being more substantive. Readers gobbled up the later ones for their sensibility, tone of voice, and point of view: that wised-up, can-do attitude, with no phonies allowed.
“I’d been in the infantry in Korea and met some pretty bad people,” Mr. Parker told Mr. Kaminsky, “but many, maybe most of the people I met in university life were the worst people I’d ever met.”
The Spenser chronicles were created to be read in the moment. Time alone knows whether they’ll survive their creator. But one sign of how important a writer was to us is how death, in an instant, can turn a name-brand author from taken for granted to one of a kind. Right away, we miss Robert B. Parker.