Robert B. Parker, an Appreciation

Robert B. Parker, best known as the author of the Spenser detective novels, died this week at the age of 77. I first started reading his books because their Boston setting soothed my homesickness for that part of the world. I kept reading them because I was enchanted by Spenser's knowledge of literature, sense of humour and code of honour. Also, the books were simply fun to read, especially the early ones. I watched the television version, Spenser: For Hire, but felt it did not do justice to the books. It did, however, give us the excellent Avery Brooks as Spenser's friend, Hawk.

I met Parker twice. Once was at a book signing at Murder Loves Company in Baltimore. It was a weekday afternoon, so the turnout was sparse, and I actually had time to speak with him. Already a best-selling author, he was generous enough to talk with me a little about writing, about Boston. I thanked him for providing my sons, also big fans, with a different model of what it means to be a man in our society. Embarrassed, he ducked his head and said, “Jes' doin' my job, ma'am.”

He did do his job. His work ethic was one of the first things that I, as a writer, learned from him. He turned out five-to-ten pages a day, five days a week, every week. I heard him say once that you couldn't help but write a whole book if you just kept piling up those five pages every day. And that was where he was found dead on Monday, at his writing desk.

He was the first author to teach me about using setting as a character in your books. I studied how he used Boston and its environs to anchor his stories. He also taught me about pacing, and lightening dark stories with a little humour. Finally he gave me a lesson in courage: late in his writing career, when anyone might have expected him to just keep pumping out more Spenser novels, he embarked on two new series, one featuring Sunny Randall and the second featuring Jesse Stone.

The other time I met him was at a reading he gave at a local bookstore. This time—an evening—the place was jammed. He read a little and talked a lot, keeping the audience laughing with his low-key humour. During the question-and-answer period, he patiently responded to the usual questions about where he got his ideas and what time of day he worked. Then, an attractive woman, maybe late thirties, got up and said that Spenser was pretty much a perfect man. She started counting off his attributes on her fingers: strong and resourceful yet not afraid to show his deep love for Susan; a man who could cook a gourmet meal, crack a joke, and handle himself in a fist-fight; etc. Just as we were starting to wonder if she actually had a question, she threw both hands in the air and cried, “Where can I find a man like Spenser?”

Parker was obviously taken aback, and paused for a moment before thanking her for her kind words about his detective and talking rather generally about not drawing characters from real life. I, however, was itching to stand up and shout, “Are you blind? He's standing right in front of you!”

Not that I thought Parker based his detective on himself. Nor was I unclear on the difference between fictional characters and real people. It just seemed obvious to me that so many of the characteristics she had been enumerating were shared by this good man standing in the front of the room, demonstrating his kindness and sense of humour in almost everything he said. He was well-known for his generosity to other writers and his devotion to his wife, Joan. He clearly knew a lot about both cooking and boxing. And I believed that in order to create Spenser, whose most outstanding characteristic for me is his code of honour, Parker must have thought long and hard about what it means to be an honourable man. He must have cared about such things in order to notice the moral code that writers like Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and Raymond Chandler gave their detectives.

I didn't know Parker personally, but by all accounts he was the good man I thought he must be. I am more grateful than I can say for his books and the way they have comforted me when I was sad and reminded me of what writing can do.

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