In the past 15 years I’ve spent a lot of time running my mind around Boston with a private investigator named Spenser and his enforcer pal Hawk. I’ve spent a few days in Paradise, Maine, too, hanging out with a failed baseball player turned alcoholic police chief named Jessie Stone. Point of fact I was in Paradise Monday morning (Jan. 18), likely around the same time as novelist Robert B. Parker sat down for his last working day.
Parker, of Cambridge, died yesterday, after 77 years of life and more than 50 novels. Parker is best known for his “Spenser for Hire” series (37 books) but he also created the worlds of Jessie Stone, private detective Sunny Randall and taciturn Old West lawmen Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. Parker was found dead at his desk, probably in mid sentence.
On Monday morning I finished “Strangers in Paradise,” a Jesse Stone novel published in 2008, which I started about 10 the night before. Earlier in the month I read Parker’s Western “Appaloosa” and reread “Cold Service,” in which Hawk takes a couple of bullets and Spenser helps him recuperate and take vengeance. (I dogeared a page in that one because I wanted to show my wife a scene wherein Spenser and his love Susan were having dinner at Upstairs at the Square.) I’d have to sit down and catalog to be sure, but I believe I have nearly all of Parker’s work, save a few juvenile novels and the book he wrote with his wife Joan about her battle with cancer several years ago.
I’m a fan. My Parker collection is the only part of my personal library left unculled over the 15 years and nearly as many address changes since I graduated college. Spenser and Parker took me to Boston’s mean streets and Henry Cimoli’s gym; I took them to Maine, New York, New Hampshire, New Orleans, Paris, El Salvador and Niger.
Parker will not be remembered as a social changer, but he did his bit. When Parker’s son revealed he was gay, Parker added gay characters to his universes – characters every bit as tough, loyal and capable as Spenser and Hawk. When man’s man Jesse Stone started to lose his battle with the bottle, Parker had him take the unmanly (but necessary) step of asking for help. Parker’s female protagonist, Sunny Randall, exists and thrives on her own terms in a world every bit as brutal and unpredictable as the ones protected by Spenser and Stone. Parker’s characters introduced me to Scotch.
If Parker’s writing were a food, it would be a cheeseburger. It’s tasty, quick and predictably perfect every time. Parker saw his writing as more craft than art, and he honed it with years of toil and discipline. His sentences and paragraphs race cleanly into his readers’ heads, pulling them along in their wake. Reading a Parker novel is effortless, an effect that can only be created by a writer with absolute command over the language. He wrote his first novel in 1971, while working as a professor at Northeastern University. He told me he took the job so he’d have time to write.
“I gave everybody an ‘A’,” he joked a few years ago at an event in his honor at the Manchester Public Library. “You’d be surprised how few people come back and bother you if you give them an ‘A.’”
I met Parker twice, once at the Hartford Courant Writer’s conference in the late 1990s and again a few years ago when I interviewed him for The Oxx.
During the interview Parker – a veteran of countless interviews — challenged me to come up with a question that no journalist had ever asked him before. I failed, but I learned a few things.
Parker wrote 10 pages a day, whether it took him two hours or 12. Writing was his job, not his art. “Then I go to the gym and try to preserve what’s left,” he said.
Parker built many of the bookshelves at Kate’s Mystery Books in Cambridge, Mass.
Parker and his wife Joan (who he dedicated most of his books to) has an unusual living arrangement: she had the bottom two floors of their house to herself, he had the top floor.
His favorite modern mystery writer was Elmore Leonard.
His advice to young writers: “Don’t do it; I don’t need the competition.”
Mr. Parker, I’ll miss you and I appreciate the adventures you allowed me to share. Your discipline and commitment to your craft is an inspiration. Thanks for the advice and all those tasty cheeseburgers.
– Dandy Rob