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by Bamber Gascoigne

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Robert B(rown) Parker (1932-2010)


American mystery writer, the creator of the Boston-based private eye Spenser, a man of honor. Parker introduced his wisecracking and literate hero in The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). Spenser dominated the scene of traditional private detectives for several decades, and although he grew older during the series, he remained the toughest and bravest of them all.

"I walked back across the park and crossed Fifth Avenue and turned uptown. There was a plate glass window on the Hotel Pierre and I checked my reflection as I went by. I was wearing a leather jacket and a blue-toned Allen Solly tattersall shirt and jeans, and Nike running shoes with a charcoal swoosh. I paused and turned the collar up on my leather jacket. Perfect. Did the traffic slow on of Fifth Avenue to look at me? Maybe." (from Taming a Sea-Horse, 1986)

Robert B. Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, into into a working class family. He received his B.A. from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and served then two years with the U.S. Army in Korea. In 1957 Parker earned his M.A. in literature from Boston University. Between the years 1957 and 1962 he worked in industry as a technical writer and in advertising business.

In 1962 Parker began his sixteen-year academic career, earning his Ph.D. in literature from Boston University in 1971. His dissertation was entitled "The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald." In 1976 Parker became a full professor at Northeastern University of Boston. Three years later he retired to devote himself entirely to writing. At that time he already had published five Spenser novels. In 1976 Parker's Promised Land won the best novel Edgar Allan Poe award from Mystery Writers of America.

In addition of being an ex-boxer and ex-state policeman, Spenser is a gourmet cook and a reader of serious literature. He was named for Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare's contemporary, whose greatest work, The Faerie Queene (1590-96), examined knightly virtues. The hero of the poem was Prince Arthur, betrothed to the Fairy Queen. Each knight represented one of Aristotele's twelve moral virtues. Six books came out during Spenser's lifetime. The original plan consisted of twelve cantos.

In A Savage Place (1981) Spenser read in his office Play of Double Senses: Spenser's Faerie Queene, written by the president of Yale. "Susan Silverman had given it to me, claiming it was my biography. But it wasn't." But Spencer's personal ethics are perhaps more derived from tales of the Old West than chivalric Europe. It is no surprise that Parker also published a western novel of Wyatt Earp, Gunman's Rhapsody (2001), and continued with a series of western novels about Virgil Cole and Everett Hitc, two lawmen-for-hire (Appaloosa, 2005; Resolution, 2008; Brimstone; 2009; Blue-Eyed Devil, 2010).

The crucial thing that separates Parker's hero from lonely gunfighters is Spencer's social character. His best friend is an African American bodyguard and hit man named Hawk, and his lover is the Jewish feminist therapist, Susan Silverman, who has a Ph.D. in psychology. Hawk and Susan are in fact extreme extensions of Spenser's personality, Susan representing his rational and social side, and Hawk his asocial, violent tendencies. Spenser's financial situation is steady – he has no problems with the rent of his office but often he works without being paid. In Sudden Mischief (1998) he helps Susan, and in Hush Money (1999) he helps Susan's friend and Hawk's friend – of course without charge. In Mortal Stakes (1975) Spenser tells his charge: "A hundred a day and expenses. But I'm running a special this week; at no extra charge I teach you how to wave a blackjack."

Spenser books are narrared in first-person and written in taut, sparing prose. The dialogue is sharp and indulges the reader with witty notes on characters, customs, and contemporary life. Spenser trains at Henry Cimoli's Harbor Health Club. He is a great cook who knows how to marinate venison chops in red wine and rosemary. Usually Spenser takes beer in a bar, but sometimes he drinks Murphy's Irish Whiskey, or Finlandia vodka or Cuvée Dom Pérignon, 1971, with Susan Silverman. In each story there is a moral or ethical dilemma, which gives light to Spenser's personal code of behavior. He was raised Catholic, but he has lost his faith. When a client asks, "Do you believe in almighty God?", Spenser answers: "Why, does he want to hire me?" And after a thought he adds: "Or she." Tensions inside family are among main theme in the stories and often behind Spencer's cases is parental failures at love. Parker's work have spawned a number of spinn-offs. The television series 'Spenser: For Hire,' starring Robert Ulrich and Avery Brooks, ran during the mid-1980s. Hawk got his own series, 'A Man Called Hawk,' in 1988-89.

Hawk is introduced in The Promised Land (1976). "Shepard appeared from the door past the stairs. With him was a tall black man with a bald head and high cheekbones." Susan Silverman joins Spencer's world in God Save the Child (1975). "Susan Silverman wasn't beautiful, but there was a tangibility about her... It was hard to tell her age but there was a sense about her of intelligent maturity which put her on my side of thirty." Their relationship is examined more deeply in the following novels. Susan leaves Spenser for some time as she embarks on a new career in Valediction (1984), and Spenser has an affair with Linda Thomas, a thirty-eight-year old woman, who has separated from her second husband. Later Spenser rescues Susan from captors in A Catskill Eagle (1985) and their relationship is reestablished. In Double Deuce (1992) Susan wants Spenser to move in with her, but Spenser finds it perfect to have a separate place for himself. Susan Silverman was modelled after the author's wife, Joan. They had met at Colby College in Maine, and married in 1956. Ms. Parker became a professor of early childhood growth and development at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass.

Parker dealt with his marital problems in his books in indirect way. He separated from his wife in 1982. Two year later they were reunited with a new arrangement – they bought a 14-room Victorian house with independent apartments. There on the ground floor the author wrote usually five finished pages a day; he lived on the second floor and Ms. Parker lived on the third floor. Parker died at his desk on January 18, 2010, in Cambridge, Mass. The cause of death was a heart attack. Joan H. Parker died of lung cancer in June 2013.

Paul Giacomin, Spenser's surrogate son, was introduced in Early Autumn (1981). Later Paul pursued a career in dancing. The author's own elder son also studied to become a choreographer and younger an actor. Other major regular characters are Lieutenant Martin Quirk, Sergeant Frank Belson, and Rita Fiore, an attorney. Also the mobster Vinnie Morris appears on occasion. Pearl the Wonder Dog, a German shorthair pointer, was added to the family portrait in Pastime (1991). Spenser had one like her when he was young, but Pearl belonged to Susan's ex-husband. The author himself – not surprisingly – had a German short-haired pointer with the same name.

He left.
"Been together long?" I said to Sapp.
"Ten years."
"Love's a good thing," I said.
"Even the one that dare not speak its name?"
"Even that one."

(from Hugger, Mugger, 2000)

Parker often varied openings of his stories, but Hugger Mugger (2000) begins in the traditional way – a client enters P.I's office. Spenser never fails to have fun at his client's expense and this time a daughter, who comes with her worried father, must explain the joke: '"Daddy," Penny said, "he's saying sometimes he gets a clienyt who's a horse's ass."' Someone is attacking on Walter Clive's racehorses in Lamarr, Georgia, and Spenser gets in the middle of a Tennessee Williams play. Walter is murdered and eventually Spenser has good reasons to believe that Penny killed him or planned the murder with the on-site supervisor. However, this time Spenser loses. She doesn't confess and avoids arrest.

At the end of Potshot (2001), a combination of western, whodunit, and novel noir, Spenser watches his client, a woman, walk away from a murder. The novel renewed the basic situation of Akira Kurosawa's famous film, Seven Samurai (1954), later remade in the U.S. as The Magnificent Seven (1960). However, Spenser himself refers to another film, The Big Chill (1983). In the story Spenser calls his friends, Hawk, Vinnie Morris, Bernard J. Fortune, Tedy Sapp, Bobby Horse and Challo, to help a small town terrorized by a gang of thugs. But even Spenser cannot protect all people from all crooks. In School Days (2005) a young girl is killed after Spenser promises that nothing will happen to her. "You can't save everybody," Rita Fiore says. "And if I try, I end up saving nobody," Spenser says. The fate of April Kyle, the teenage runaway and prostitute from Ceremony (1982), is sealed in Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006).

Spenser was one of the great detective characters along with Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, and Lew Archer. And perhaps he was also the descendant of the knight Marlowe sees over the entrance doors of the Sternwood palace in The Big Sleep: "... there was broad stained-glass panel showing a knight in dark armour rescuing a lady who was tied to a tree and didn't have any clothes on but some very long and convenient hair." Spenser's home town Boston is carefully depicted in the novels. In Japan, where Spenser series enjoyed a huge popularity, the Illustrated Encyclopedia of Spenser Novels included maps of the Boston area. ''It's the way Raymond Chandler made Los Angeles real. I need the mood a cityscape can provide, the way light shines through a window with the rain sliding down it. The characters in a series give you a rich and broad canvas on which to work." (Robert B.Parker in The New York Times, June 11, 1997)

Parker also published books not connected with the character of Spenser. Three Weeks in Spring (1979) Parker wrote with his wife, Joan H. Parker. All Our Yesterdays (1994) was a multigenerational saga about an Irish-American family from the early years of the twentieth century. In 1989 Parker completed Raymond Chandler's fragment of a Philip Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, which was filmed in 1998. Perchance to Dream (1994) was a sequel to Chandler's classic The Big Sleep. With Night Passage (1997) Parker launched a new series. The protagonist, Jesse Stone, is a former Los Angeles police detective with a drinking problem, who becomes the chief of police in a small Massachusetts town called ironically Paradise. Family Honor (1999) was the first novel in another series of books. The character of Sunny Randall, a female private eye, was originally created for the actress Helen Hunt. Blue Screen (2006) and High Profile (2007) connected the fictional worlds of Jesse Stone and Sunny Randal.

For further reading:: Mystery and Suspense Writers, Vol. 2, ed. by Robin W, Winks (1998); World Authors 1985-1990, ed. by Vineta Colby (1995); Colloquium on Crime, ed. by Robin Winks (1986); Private Eyes: One Hundred and One Knights, A Survey of American Detective Fiction, 1922-1984, by R. Baker and M. Nietzel (1985) Sons of Sam Spade by David Geherin (1980) - Note: I read my first Spenser novel in Tanzania, Africa, in 1992. It was Looking for Rachel Wallace, a well-worn and dusty exemplar, which I found from a street vendor's table. When I returned to Finland a year later, I took the copy with me and started to collect other Spenser stories. - Petri Liukkonen.

Selected works:

  • The Personal Response to Literature, 1971 (ed.)
  • The Godwulf Manuscript, 1973
  • Order and Diversity, 1973 (ed.)
  • God Save the Child, 1974
  • Mortal Stakes, 1975
  • Promised Land, 1976
  • Three Weeks in Spring, 1978 (with Joan H. Parker)
  • The Judas Goat, 1978 
    - TV film 1994, prod. ABC Cable & International Broadcast Inc., Boardwalk Entertainment, Protocol Entertainment, dir. Joseph L. Scanlan, starring Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Natalie Redford, Wendy Crewson
  • Wilderness, 1979
  • Mature Advertising, 1980
  • Looking for Rachel Wallace, 1980
    - Kovaa peliä Bostonissa (suom. Erkki Jukarainen, 1988)
  • Early Autumn, 1981
  • A Savage Place, 1981
    - TV film 1995, prod. ABC Cable & International Broadcast Inc., Boardwalk Entertainment, Protocol Entertainment, dir. Joseph L. Scanlan, starring Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Wendy Crewson, Cynthia Dale
  • Ceremony, 1982 
    - TV film 1993, prod. Boardwalk Entertainment, Jaffa Road Management Ltd., Norstar Entertainment, dir. by Paul Lynch, Andrew Wild, starring Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Barbara Williams, J. Winston Carroll, Tanya Allen
    - Liian kaukana viattomuudesta (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1991) 
  • Surrogate, 1982
  • The Widening Gyre, 1983
  • Love and Glory, 1983
  • Valediction, 1984
  • The Private Eye in Hammett and Chandler, 1984
  • Parker on Writing, 1985
  • A Catskill Eagle, 1985
  • Taming a Sea-Horse, 1986
  • Pale Kings and Princes, 1987
    - TV film 1994, prod. Boardwalk Entertainment, Norstar Entertainment, Ultra Entertainment, dir. Vic Sarin, starring Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Barbara Williams, Sonja Smits
  • Crimson Joy, 1988
  • Playmates, 1989
  • Poodle Springs, 1989 (with Raymond Chandler)
    - TV film 1998, prod. Avnet/Kerner Productions, Home Box Office (HBO), Mirage Enterprises, dir. by Bob Rafaelson, teleplay by Tom Stoppard, starring James Caan, Dina Meyer, David Keith, Tom Bower, Julia Campbell, Brian Cox
    - Marlowe palaa kaupunkiin (suom. Leena Tamminen, 1990) 
  • Stardust, 1990
  • A Year at the Races, 1990 (with Joan H. Parker)
  • Spots Illustrated Training With Weights, 1990 (with J. Marsh)
  • Pastime, 1991
  • Perchance to Dream, 1991
    - Marlowe etsii naista: jatko Raymond Chandlerin Syvään uneen (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1991)
  • Double Deuce, 1992
  • Paper Doll, 1993
  • All Our Yesterdys, 1994
  • Walking Shadow, 1994
    - TV film 2001, prod. A&E Television Networks, Brandman Productions, Jaffe/Braunstein Films, dir. by Po-Chih Leong, starring Joe Mantegna, Ernie Hudson, Marcia Gay Harden
  • Spencer's Boston, 1994
  • Thin Air, 1995
    - TV film 2000, prod. Jaffe/Braunstein Films, dir. Robert Mandel, starring Joe Manregna, Marcia Gay Harden, Luis Guzmán, Miguel Sandoval
  • Chance, 1996
  • Small Vices, 1997
    - TV film 1999, produced by A&E, dir. by Robert Markowitz, starring Joe Mantegna, Shiek Mahmud-Bey, Marcia Gay Harden, Eugene Lipinski, Laila Robins
  • Night Passage, 1997
    - TV film 2006, prod. Brandman Productions, TWS Productions II, dir. Robert Harmon, starring Tom Selleck, Saul Rubinek, Viola Davis, Kohl Sudduth, Polly Shannon
  • Sudden Mischief, 1998
  • Trouble in Paradise, 1998
  • Hush Money, 1999
  • Family Honor, 1999
  • Hugger, Mugger, 2000
  • Potshot, 2001
  • Gunman's Rhapsody, 2001
  • Perish Twice, 2001
  • Death in Paradise, 2001
    - TV  film 2006, prod. Brandman Productions, TWS Productions II, Sony Pictures Television, dir. Robert Harmon, starring Tom Selleck, Viola Davis, Kohl Sudduth, Orla Brady
  • Shrink Rap, 2002
  • Widow's Walk, 2002
  • Back Story: A Suspense Novel, 2003
  • Monte Walsh, 2003 (teleplay, with Michel Brandman, David Zelag Goodman, Lukas Heller; based on the novel by Jack Schaefer)
    - film 2003, prod. Turner Network Television (TNT), Brandman Productions, TWS Productions II,  dir. by Simon Wincer, starring Tom Selleck, Isabella Rosselini, Keith Carradine, George Eads, Robert Carradine
  • Stone Cold, 2003
    - TV film 2005, dir. Robert Harmon, prod. Brandman Productions, TWS Productions II, Sony Pictures Television, starring Tom Selleck, Mimi Rogers, Jane Adams, Reg Rogers, Viola Davis, Alexis Dziena, Kohl Sudduth
  • Bad Business, 2004
  • Melancholy Baby, 2004
  • Cold Service, 2005
  • School Days, 2005
  • Appaloosa, 2005
    - TV film 2008, prod. New Line Cinema, Axon Films, Groundswell Productions, dir. Ed Harris, starring Robert Jauregui, Jeremy Irons, Timothy V. Murphy, Luce Rains
  • Sea Change, 2006
    - TV film 2007, prod. Brandman Productions, TWS Productions II, Sony Pictures Television, dir. Robert Harmon, starring Tom Selleck, Kathy Baker, Kohl Sudduth, Rebecca Pidgeon, Sean Young
  • Blue Screen, 2006
  • Hundred-Dollar Baby, 2006
  • High Profile, 2007
  • Edenville Owls, 2007
  • Spare Change, 2007
  • Now and Then, 2007
  • Stranger in Paradise, 2008
  • The Boxer and the Spy, 2008
  • Resolution, 2008
  • Rough Weather, 2008
  • Brimstone, 2009
  • Night and Day, 2009
  • Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel, 2009
  • The Professional, 2009
  • Split Image, 2010
  • Blue-Eyed Devil, 2010
  • Painted Ladies, 2010

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