West Virginia Book Festival

Remembering Spenser author Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker died in January. Today would have been his 78th birthday.

If you know Parker, you probably know him as the author of the mystery series starring Spenser, the Bostonian private detective. However, you might not know the whole story. I consider myself a pretty big Parker fan, and I didn’t realize the impact he had on the detective story until I read some of the tributes to him after his death.

When I first found the Spenser books a couple of decades ago, the mystery genre was booming, and Parker was just another name in the crowd. But when he published his first Spenser novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” in 1973, “hard-boiled” detectives were largely a device of the past. The creators of the greatest such characters, Dashiell Hammett (Sam Spade) and Raymond Chandler (Philip Marlowe), were long dead. A few others, notably Ross Macdonald and John D. MacDonald, were nearing the end of their run.

In many ways, Parker rejuvenated the genre. He gave Spenser the same toughness as Chandler’s Marlowe, but he brought the character’s sense of right and wrong into the latter half of the 20th century. He also writes the same sort of snappy dialogue (although no one does dialogue as well as Chandler). Hawk, Spenser’s largely amoral black sidekick, gets some of the best lines.

Parker also put much of himself into the Spenser character: the love of good food and cooking, the strong belief in psychotherapy, the acceptance of homosexuals before it became mainstream (both of Parker’s sons are gay), the series of short-haired pointers (all named Pearl). He and his wife, Joan, split up briefly about 30 years ago, and that personal turmoil is reflected in Spenser’s life as well, making for some of the best books of the series.

Parker was a college professor who wrote his dissertation on hard-boiled detectives, arguing that they were the continuation of a longstanding tradition of romantic heroes. Spenser’s very name invokes Edmund Spenser, author of the Elizabethan poetic epic “The Faerie Queene,” where knights roam the countryside, fighting demons and personifying virtue. Literary allusions are sprinkled throughout the books. One of Spenser’s most-repeated phrases is Hamlet’s “Readiness is all.” A sometimes-friend, sometimes-foil calls him Lochinvar. My favorite, I think, is Hawk’s take on Ralph Waldo Emerson: “A foolish consistency be the hobgoblin of little minds.” Spenser’s response: “Of course it be.”

In his later years, Parker began series with several other characters: police chief Jesse Stone, female detective Sunny Randall, Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch – probably because he got tired of writing about the same characters for 30 years. Dennis Lehane (another Boston guy, who cites Parker as one of his biggest influences) once said in so many words that people might talk about the third or fourth book of a series being the best, but no one talks about the twentieth being the best.

The results of Parker’s later years were mixed. Certainly, the later books in the Spenser series don’t measure up to the earlier ones. Spenser’s become a little set in his ways. He’s got strong friendships with both the cops (who didn’t completely trust him early on) and the bad guys (who turn out to have hearts of gold). He’s got a stable relationship with his sweetie, psychotherapist Susan Silverman, and he’s willing to talk psychoanalysis with her forever. Of his recent books, I think I’ve enjoyed his westerns the most, because in them, no one ever heard of Freud.

Maybe you know Spenser from the 1980s TV show starring Robert Urich, or the Jesse Stone TV movies starring Tom Selleck. If you’ve enjoyed those and haven’t read the books, you’re missing out. Two Spenser novels are due to be published posthumously, including “Painted Ladies” on Oct. 5. I’ll read that one, and I’ll probably go back for a quick re-read of some of my favorites as well.

I think the best Spenser books are from the early to mid-1980s, including “Looking for Rachel Wallace,” “Early Autumn,” “A Catskill Eagle” and “Pale Kings and Princes.” If I were reading him for the first time, that’s probably where I’d start.