Robert B. Parker’s latest Spenser novel, Sixkill, hits shelves and e-readers everywhere on May 3rd. Though Parker passed away unexpectedly last January, it may be premature to assume this will be the last time we see Spenser in action. I mean, Parker died last year and still released three books. For all we know, he may keep releasing new material for years, like some kind of pulp fiction Tupac Shakur.
(Breaking news: The estate has since announced plans for both the Jesse Stone and Spenser series to be continued posthumously by other writers, but that deserves its own post, doesn’t it? Stay tuned!)
Since no new Spenser books have yet been announced, this is a good opportunity to look back on the forty-entry series. Parker—who earned a PhD from Boston University with a doctoral thesis 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”—was working as a literature professor at Northeastern University when he published his first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, in 1973. He quit teaching as soon as he was able (his utter distain for academics is a running gag in his books) and devoted himself fulltime to writing novels about Spenser, the Boston PI with quick fists and an even quicker wit. The series was a hit from the start and inspired a successful television show, a spin-off show, and a string of TV movies. From the start, Parker was a one-man pulp factory. For about twenty years, he released a book a year.
This period of steady efficiency lasted until 1997 when Parker decided to get serious. He introduced a second series, featuring police chief Jesse Stone. This was followed by a third series, featuring female PI Sunny Randall—followed by a Western series featuring cowboys Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch. All this in addition to one-offs like the YA novel The Boxer and the Spy and a set-your-watch-by-it annual Spenser novel. By 2006, Parker released three or four books a year. Sometimes it seemed like as soon as you put one down, Parker spit another one out.
They weren’t all great, of course. Nobody knocks out four books a year without cutting corners. Somewhere around 1999, Parker decided he could ditch description. Thereafter, characters and scenes were sketched rather than conveyed. This irked some readers who felt that Parker’s Hemingway-was-too-wordy approach to fiction had watered down its impact.
What seems to me inarguable, however, are Parker’s legacy and entertainment value. As far as legacy goes, it can be argued that he is the true heir of the Big Three. Reading Parker at his best naturally leads you to seek out Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald (and, I think, Mosley and Grafton, as well). As for entertainment, I’ll just say it: there was never a more entertaining writer than Robert B. Parker. His prose flowed like a river. He wrote jokes better than any comedian, and his fight scenes were full-impact chess games. He rarely wrote plots that were worth remembering, but as Chandler once wrote, a good mystery is one where you don’t have to read the last page. Good pop-pulp is all about buzzing on a sugary high, turning pages for the sheer pleasure of seeing what comes next. Kurt Vonnegut said the writer’s first obligation was to be a good date to the reader, and there’s no better date than Spenser.
I’m something of a Spenser purist. I’ve dipped into Parker’s other books, but it’s the smartass private eye from Boston who’s my real hero. What I love about him is that he is the anti-Mike Hammer. Whereas Hammer is essentially a psychopath—the central emotional current of Hammer novels is gleeful sadism—Spenser is a hero, an ideal, and an inspirational figure: Parker’s perfect man. (If Hammer indulges masculine bloodlust, Spenser indulges a desire to achieve masculine perfection.) While I usually drift more toward the gritty noir stuff, occasionally you need a reason to think that people can do the right thing after all. For nearly forty years, Spenser showed up in bookstores to do just that. Long live Spenser.
Here are some notable cases over the course of Spenser’s long career:
The Godwulf Manuscript(1973): The first book. You can smell the Chandler influence on the pages, but Spenser’s already Spenser.
God Save the Child (1974): Parker once said that he felt the main difference between Chandler and himself was that whereas Chandler was a sad man, Parker was a happy man. That joy owed much to Parker’s beloved wife, Joan. Parker introduced her doppelganger, Susan Silverman, in this book.
Promised Land (1976) - Won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1977. Also served as the pilot for the television series, Spenser For Hire.
Looking For Rachel Wallace (1980) - A hardboiled take on sexual politics. Tough guy Spenser is hired to protect a controversial feminist author. Complications ensue.
Early Autumn (1980) - Spenser kidnaps a young boy at the center of a violent custody battle and takes him to Maine to build a cabin. A coming of age story with Spenser as an ass-kicking spiritual mentor. In a better world, they’d assign this book to high school students instead of The Red Pony. Followed by a sequel, Pastime, in 1991.
A Catskill Eagle (1985) - Susan is abducted, and Hawk is in jail. Spenser sets out like an errant knight on a quest to make things right. He will get very tarnished in the process. A full-blown adventure novel.
Cold Service (2005) - When Parker introduced the African-American hit man Hawk early in the series, the character gave Spenser an interesting double. Whenever the storyline centered on Hawk, however, it always seemed to knock Parker off his game. The prose here is so minimalist it feels indifferent.
The April Kyle Trilogy: Ceremony (1982), Taming a Sea-Horse (1986), Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006) - For my money, Spenser’s best outings where the three books involve his increasingly futile attempts to save a prostitute named April Kyle. Proof that Parker could write noir when he was of the mind.
For a comprehensive list of works Parker created and inspired, you can also visit The Thrilling Detective.
Jake Hinkson, The Night Editor