In Memoriam

Lively Literary Light Goes Out

Spenser creator dies with his boots on.

By 1.22.10

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There was some very good news for conservatives out of Massachusetts this week. And some very bad news for fans of crime fiction of all philosophies out of the same state.

When my New England sources told me of a formation of pigs spotted over Ipswich Monday, I knew Scott Brown's chances were good. I greatly enjoyed the Pigs Fly party Tuesday night at a local watering hole put on by the Tampa Downtown Republican Club, a group of hearty patriots whose joy knew no bounds election night, though I fear several of them had trouble making a fist Wednesday morning. (There were so many things to toast that night that many of the members were themselves nearly toast before it was all put through.)

My own powers were somewhat under a cloud Wednesday a.m. when I read the sad news of the death in Cambridge of Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser series of P.I. novels as well as the Jesse Stone novels (yes, the ones from which some pretty good movies starring Tom Selleck as Stone were made). Parker was 77 and died suddenly of a heart attack while writing at his desk. His many fans, which include me, can take some solace in that there's hardly a better way for a writer to go out. He died with his boots on. (OK, Parker's taste probably ran to loafers, but you know what I mean.)

Parker resurrected and modernized the literary private-eye tradition made popular in the years just before and just after World War II by such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross MacDonald when he muscled his way onto the stage with The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. Readers – there've been plenty over the years as Parker's books have sold tens of millions of copies – quickly learned that the tough but literate and funny Spenser (no first name is ever given) was a private-eye with a difference.

Hammett's Sam Spade, Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and MacDonald's Lew Archer were said to be of the "hard-boiled" tradition, cynical and damaged loners who worked the mean streets of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Spenser is more over-easy.

Parker's Boston detective is a worthy successor. He's as complex and as tough as those earlier guys. In fact he's an ex-boxer who once fought Jersey Joe Walcott. He's street smart and has no illusions about the world he lives and works in. But unlike with Spade et al., there's no world-weariness with Spenser, no angst. While Spenser's work carries us into the world's darkness, the darkness never overpowers us. The Spenser stories are not noir.

Spenser can beat up bad guys or even engage in gunplay when needed, though he leaves most of the shooting to his dodgy but lethal sidekick Hawk, one of the most charming thugs in all of literature. And he can wisecrack with the best of them (with Spenser, unlike with many other fictional private-eyes, the wisecracks are actually funny). But he also knows how to have a good time.

Spenser knows food and music and reads. He has a regular sweetie-pie (named Susan, who, it must be said in all fairness, can be irritating and way too precious sometimes) to whom he is faithful, and lots of friends. You could have a beer or watch a Red Sox game with Spenser (both Spenser and his creator are baseball savvy) without becoming depressed, as you almost certainly would if you tried the same thing with Philip Marlowe.

Parker's work is genre fare. But crime fiction, usually the biggest section in your local bookstore, is today's novel of manners. At its best it shows us how we live, and can even hint at how we should live. In crisp, lean, insistent, first-person prose that never lets a story lag, Parker deals intelligently with such matters as integrity, personal responsibility, courage, autonomy, fidelity, friendship, the place and meaning of work in our lives, and what it means to be a man or a woman in our post-everything world. There's a good deal more in Spenser than just the plot.

Mostly apolitical, Spenser takes women, even aggressive feminists, seriously, but has contempt for excesses of any movement and for bad behavior. In a description of the toney restaurant where he meets his client in Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), Spenser says, "Downstairs is a room which used to be the Men's Bar until it was liberated one lunchtime by a group of humorless women who got into a shouting match with a priest."

In a line from Promised Land Spenser shows his conservative bona fides, though he may not have fancied the label. He says, "I'm sick of movements. I'm sick of people who think a new movement will take care of everything. I'm sick of people who put the cause ahead of the person."

 In Promised Land (1976) Spenser nails people who've been consumed with ideology or with a cause. "Zealots were always hard. Zeal distorts them. Makes the normal impulses convolute. Makes people fearless and greedless and loveless and finally monstrous."

Just so. Spenser gets it. He's neither right-wing nor left-wing; he's the entire bird.

Some of the funniest scenes of any Spenser novel are where Spenser first interviews his potential clients. In Rachel Wallace Spenser is hired by a publisher to protect a radical feminist writer who's receiving death threats. In the interview the publisher says that while the writer wants protection she's against muscle and machismo and any form of thuggish behavior. It draws this from Spenser: "What you want, Mr. Ticknor, is someone feisty enough to get in the line of someone else's fire, and tough enough to get away with it. And you want him to look like Winnie the Pooh and act like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. I'm not sure Rebecca's even got a gun permit."

Parker was an academic, sort of. At least he finished a Ph.D. in literature when he was almost 40 for the express purpose of getting a job as a college professor and therefore having plenty of time to write. Parker is scathing in his treatment of academe in his novels, several of which have university connections. His professors are conspicuous in their pomposity, shallowness, and affectation, curiously unhappy in their soft touch of a job.

Parker commented in the nineties that while carrying a "full load" of nine class hours plus preparation time, his academic job at Northeastern University in Boston had only kept him busy for nine and a half hours a week. For the rest, he locked himself in his faculty office where he worked on the early Spenser novels. After five novels were published he said goodbye to academe and never looked back.

Parker's success gave birth to many imitators but no equals. Spenser-esque lines can be encountered in the work of many contemporary crime writers. Dennis LeHane, author of Mystic River and other Boston-based novels, gives Parker credit for teaching him to be concise and funny on the page. Uber-successful crime writer Harlan Coben said that 90 percent of current writers of detective novels admit Parker has had an influence on their work while "the rest of us lie about it." (Full disclosure: after re-reading several chapters I'd put together in one of my unsuccessful attempts to write fiction, I discarded them on discovering they were just Spenser with palm trees.)

There are a few things in Parker's work that red-meat conservatives will likely find uncongenial. He thinks rather more highly of psychotherapy and psychotherapists than is called for. His wife, Joan, has a doctorate in some branch of the head trade, probably accounting for the excess talkiness in this area in Parker's work. Many readers of the Jesse Stone series wish Stone would just make up his damn mind whether he wants to be with his ex-wife or not. And the scenes where Stone himself talks with a psychologist about all of this can be skipped over.

But these misdemeanors are more than made up for by Parker's vigorous and witty defense of the manly virtues, basic decency, and the honorable life. So, should TAS readers spice up an evening or weekend day by reading a Spenser novel? In a frequently recurring line from Parker's novels that his regular readers will recognize as almost an inside joke, "We'd be fools not to."

RIP Bob Parker.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.