I was literally shocked to read of the passing of Robert B. Parker in this morning's paper. He was 77 and died of a sudden heart attack, at his desk in his Cambridge, Massachusetts home.
Mr. Parker published 65 books in 37 years. Pretty astounding, but understandable considering his disciplined work habits. He would write 5 pages a day. Every day. His interest in crime fiction was honed while working toward his doctorate in English Literature at Boston University, where he wrote his dissertation, titled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality," which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald-- the writers generally considered the Holy Trinity of the genre. If there is room for a fourth name, it is surely Mr. Parker's. After receiving his doctorate, he taught for a while at Northeastern University, when he wrote his first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript.
Of the 65 books, 38 featured Spenser, the Boston detective (with no first name). I have read all but the most recent. Some are better than others, but as a body of work, they are pretty damned good. The books are like catching up with old friends. Spenser, along with his steady girlfriend, Susan Silverman and his faithful cohort, Hawk, filled the pages with snappy dialogue, fast action and surprising and perceptive insight into human nature and behavior. Spenser has been played by a few actors on TV, but the one everyone will associate with is Robert Urich. By and large, he did a decent job of portraying the gumshoe. And Avery Brooks was the definitive Hawk, before he took to boldly go where no African American Starfleet Commander had ever been. It was, however, Tom Selleck, that Mr. Parker thought of for the role of Spenser-- big and slightly thuggish, with a rogue smile and wry sense of humor. Mr. Parker sort of had his vision realized when the two men produced a series of made-for-TV movies based on the Jess Stone series. They are all good, and Selleck is perfect in the role.
Mr. Parker also had a series that featured a female detective, sunny Randall. He even displayed a certain amount of daring when he signed on to finish Raymond Chandler's last novel, Poodle Springs. He certainly knew the style. He followed that with another Phillip Marlowe tale, Perchance to Dream. I file the former with Chandler's books on the shelf and the latter with Parker's.
Occasionally, Mr. Parker stepped out of the genre. He wrote as trilogy of Westerns featuring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. One of them, Appaloosa, was made into a movie, directed and starring Ed Harris, and Viggo Mortenson. His one-off book, Double-Play, about a loner hired to be a bodyguard for Jackie Robinson was revelatory. A great read.
I have always read Mr. Parker's books in paperback. So, I am looking forward to the last Spenser novel, The Professional, that came out last year. Night and Day-- a Jess Stone novel is due to be released the beginning of next month and Split Image-- also a Jess Stone novel, and Mr. Parker's last book, will be out in hardcover next month as well. So, with three books waiting to be read, the loss is not that sudden. But make no mistake, the loss is and will be profound, not just for his wife and sons, not just for his millions of readers around the work but for the writers who have been so influenced by him. Dennis Lehane, who began his writing career with a series of crime novels set in Boston, is quote in the remembrance on the Boston Globe website that his "debt’s huge and I was always upfront about that. My first book is so much Robert Parker in the first chapter that I’m surprised he didn’t sue me.’’
You can read the story here.