In appreciation of Robert B. Parker


By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


January 24, 2010

"I don't know if there is even a name for the system I've chosen, but it has to do with honor. And honor is behavior for its own reason."

Spenser, in Robert B. Parker's "Mortal Stakes" (1975)


Robert B. Parker and I go way back, although he never knew it.

The no-nonsense Bostonian and creator of the Spenser detective novels died at 77 last week at home, at his desk, in Cambridge. Parker was an English professor for several years at Northeastern University in Boston, starting in the late '60s; I was a student there.

RBP, or Dr. Parker - his fans are split on the use of familiar or reverential nicknames - taught one of the most popular courses at NU, a survey of hardboiled literature from Poe through the mid-20th century, with special emphasis on Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. The course was an outgrowth of Parker's Boston University doctoral dissertation on his idols, Chandler, Hammett and Ross Macdonald.

I could never fit his course into my schedule. I still regret it.

After Parker revived the hardboiled crime genre with his first dozen Spenser novels, he got a dream job: The Chandler estate hired him to complete an

unfinished Philip Marlowe story. "Poodle Springs" was published in 1989. Two years later, Parker again revived Marlowe in "Perchance to Dream, " a sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep." But before Parker ever sold a book, he reviewed restaurants for an alternative weekly newspaper in Boston. I eagerly read his reviews, often before turning to news of Vietnam, politics or music, and got to "meet" his wife, Joan, and boys Daniel and David, through their gastronomical adventures.

The first of what would be 37 books starring Spenser - that's Spenser with an S, like the poet, the PI with no known first name would say - appeared in 1974. "The Godwulf Manuscript" followed the dictum "write what you know." Set at a college that was clearly inspired by Northeastern, the first line reads: "The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse."

I had been called on the carpet in that room. I had lived a few blocks from Spenser's Marlborough Street office. I was hooked.

For all my adult life, my reading schedule has been set by Parker. Initially, a Spenser novel would arrive annually, usually in the spring. In 1997, Parker began a series about Jesse Stone, an alcoholic former LA cop who relocates to the coast north of Boston to run a small-town police department. Two years later, Sunny Randall, a single woman struggling with romance and crime, began inhabiting Parker's fictional Boston. She never met Spenser; she most certainly did meet Jesse Stone.

In between those series, Parker wrote books - in total more than 60 - about baseball, Ireland, Wyatt Earp, his city and two recent projects: books for kids, including one about a teenage Spenser being raised by his dad and his deceased mother's two brothers; and Westerns starring Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, the first of which, "Appaloosa, " was made into a movie.

Spenser made it to television in 1985 for three seasons of "Spenser: For Hire" and several TV movies on ABC.

Robert Urich was a capable Spenser. But Avery Brooks, then a professor at Rutgers, was a revelation as Hawk, the African-American, self-described thug who had Spenser's back. Joe Mantegna later played Spenser in a series of underwhelming Lifetime movies. (For the record, Parker said his model for the character was a mid-1950s Robert Mitchum.)

You could tell a lot about Parker by reading Spenser. Both were boxers. Both were Korean War veterans. Both had one great love: Parker's Joan, and Spenser's psychiatrist girlfriend, Susan Silverman. RBP and Joan had a brief separation; so did Spenser and Susan, in "A Catskill Eagle" (1985), easily the most violent book in the series. Parker had a black lab named Pearl; so did Spenser and Susan.

In Spenser's world, many things are negotiable. Cases are solved, but lives are left shattered. Spenser tries to put the pieces back together, tries to save his clients even from themselves, but his choices are often between bad and worse. What is not negotiable is honor and loyalty and, as Spenser says, doing what you say you'll do. In Spenser's world, a person's word is sacred. Doesn't matter whether it's been given to friends or enemies, cops or crooks.

It's a code of living, most pronounced in "Mortal Stakes, " and it had a very powerful influence on me.

Back in the '90s, I had a chance to tell RBP how much his work meant to me. I stood in line outside the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Phoenix with a hundred other fans, clutching a well-worn hardcover copy of "A Catskill Eagle, " waiting for an autograph and a few seconds of face time. It played out like Ralphie waiting for a chance to tell Santa Claus about that BB rifle in "A Christmas Story." I didn't choke like Ralphie did, but RBP never made eye contact with me, and his publicist-elves hustled me out. No matter; I've got the autograph.

Better still, I have a bond with my son. When Don, who is deaf, was 12, I asked him to read "Early Autumn" (1981). In that book, Spenser rescues young Paul Giacomin from miserable parents. Paul has no skills. He is unformed. He is overflowing with self-pity. Spenser takes him to the Maine woods where the two build a cabin together, bonding and learning. Spenser becomes his guardian; Paul grows up to be a dancer. (Parker's son David is a dancer/choreographer.)

Last week, I e-mailed my son, who lives with his family south of Boston, to tell him of Parker's death. I asked him whether he remembered my giving him the book. Did you read it? What did you get from it? I asked.

"Of course I remember that book, " Don wrote back. "I read it several times. It sort of changed my perspective. It's kind of a 'Catcher in the Rye' book for me because I can relate to the character of Paul. Like him, I was having my own identity crisis. What I really learned from the book is that I needed to be independent and self-sufficient in order to figure myself out. It took me a bit longer."

Genre writers get little respect in the "serious" literary world. But for Don and me, and I suspect many others, Parker's tales of a wisecracking, modern knight-errant had an influence beyond their brief stay on the best-seller lists.

When we get together for a visit next month, Don and I will open a bottle of Hawk's favorite beverage and make a champagne toast to Dr. Parker. As Spenser would say, we'd be fools not to.