Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Late, Great Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker, the best selling author who created private eye Spenser and small town police chief Jesse Stone, passed Monday at the age of 77. He died at his desk, working on another book. The case was a heart attack.

Robert B. Parker was born on September 17, 1932 in Springfield, Massachusetts. He attended Colby College in Waterville, Maine and graduated in 1954. Afterwards he served in the United States Army, stationed in Korea following the Korean War. In 1957 he graduated from Boston University with a MA in English literature. Parker worked as a technical writer and also co-owned an advertising agency. He earned a PhD in English literature from Boston University in 1971. His dissertation, "The Violent Hero," discussed the sort of heroes created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

In 1968 Robert B. Parker was an assistant English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. Inspired by Raymond Chandler and missing Chandler's private eye, it was there that he created tough private eye Spenser (no first name was ever given). Spenser was created firmly in the mould of such hard boiled private eyes as Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, but updated for the modern era. Although possessed of a tough exterior, Spenser was always swift to rush to the aid of the innocent and fiercely loyal to his friends. Spenser first appeared in the novel The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973. He would appear in 28 more novels, with two more apparently on the way. The Spenser novels provided the inspiration for the TV series Spenser for Hire, which ran from 1985 to 1988.

Although Spenser was his most famous creation, Robert B. Parker also wrote about two other heroes. One was Jesse Stone, a former baseball player and Los Angeles homicide detective turned police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. Unfortunately for Stone, Paradise seems riddled with major crimes. Jesse Stone first appeared in the novel Night Passage, published in 1997, and appeared in eight more novels, with a tenth to be published next month. Starting with Stone Cold in 2005, seven of the Jesse Stone movies have been adapted as television movies. At the request of actress Helen Hunt, Parker created the character of Sunny Randall,  a style conscious private eye and daughter of a police officer. Randall first appeared in the novel Family Honour in 1999 and in five more novels.

It was in the Eighties that Robert B. Parker was commissioned to finish an uncompleted Raymond Chandler novel. The finished result was Poodle Springs, the final Philip Marlowe novel. Not surpisingly, Parker's style blended perfeclty with Chandler's style. He also wrote a sequel to The Big Sleep entitled Perchance to Dream. As crime writer Ed McBain observed, "Parker sounds more like Chandler than Chandler himself." Parker worked in other genres than the mystery. He also wrote Westerns, including the novel Appaloosa (adapted as a feature film in 2008) and young adult novels. In all Parker wrote over 60 books.

Robert B. Parker was one of the best mystery writes of the past thirty years. His style was remarkably close to such classic writers as Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, his prose both clipped and yet intelligent. With Spenser he successfully brought the hard boiled detective into the milieu of the Seventies and beyond. Indeed, what perhaps made Parker such a great writer was his characters, who were always completely realised. Although best known for Spenser, his greatest creation may have been Jesse Stone--the flawed, former alcoholic police chief who must nonetheless face some very serious criminals. If Robert B. Parker became one of the best selling writers of recent years, it is perhaps it is because he was one of the best writers of recent years.


mrs.krause.english said...

I agree! I miss Parker already. I'm always waiting for the next Spenser novel to come out and now I will have to wait forever.

I heard him speak once and I think he said his Master's thesis was about the relationship between Huck and Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" and he said this was a precursor to the relationship between Spenser and Hawk.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I didn't know his Master's thesis was on Huck and Jim, although it makes sense. I think one of the reasons Parker was so much better than many writers of late is that his writing was informed by having read the classics!