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Crime novelist Robert B. Parker dies

Patricia Sullivan

UPDATED 5:18 p.m.

Robert B. Parker, 77, a popular and prolific author of hard-boiled American crime fiction, best known for the 37-book Spenser series which became an ABC television show in the 1980s, died Jan. 18, at his writing desk at home in Cambridge, Mass. A cause of death was not immediately known, but his longtime agent, Helen Brann, said it appeared to have been a heart attack.

Mr. Parker helped revive the detective fiction genre with his wise-cracking, street-smart and surprisingly literate Boston private-eye Spenser (no first name and with an "s" not a "c"). The character -- an ex-boxer and ex-state policeman -- is also a gourmet cook who grapples with his complex relationships with a witty female companion, an African American alter ego and a foster son. Named for Edmund Spenser, Shakespeare's contemporary, the character and series became a favorite of the literati who enjoyed crisp, witty prose.

Mr. Parker's work was notable for its quick pace, evocative descriptions, sharp dialogue and concentration upon themes that included the troubled status of adolescents, and of women in contemporary society. His protagonists, however, were tough guys, prone to violence, who nevertheless were true to a moral code as they protected a lesbian writer in "Looking for Rachel Wallace" (1980), chased after international terrorists in "The Judas Goat" (1983) and investigated drug smuggling in "Pale Kings and Princes" (1987) and "Pastime" (1991).

Mr. Parker wrote 65 books in 37 years, and was among the top 10 best-selling authors in the world, Brann said, with 6 to 8 million books sold. He was also the 1976 winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Allan Poe Award, its 2002 Grand Master Award and Mystery Ink's 2007 Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement.

In addition to the "Spenser: For Hire" television series, which starred the late Robert Urich, Mr. Parker's Jesse Stone novels became CBS television movies starring Tom Selleck starting in 2005. "Appaloosa," his 2005 Western, was made into a 2008 movie directed by and starring Ed Harris.

A third fictional private-eye series, Sunny Randall, was created at the request of Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt, who asked Mr. Parker to write a novel with a female investigator. The first book did not become a feature film, but it was another bestseller.

His prodigious output was the result of a disciplined work ethic: He wrote five pages per day, five days a week, 50 weeks per year.

"I started writing the Jesse Stone novels because I realized that at this point in my career it takes me three to four months to write a Spenser novel and as a result I have a lot of time on my hands," he told in 2000. His next book, "Split Image," a Jesse Stone book, comes out next month, and he has turned in several books that have not yet been published, including some in the Spenser series, Brann said.

Robert Brown Parker was born Sept. 17, 1932, in Springfield, Mass., and graduated in 1954 from Colby College in Maine. He went into the Army for the next two years. He earned a master's degree in 1957 and a doctorate in 1971, both in English from Boston University. His doctoral dissertation was a study of the private eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

Mr. Parker earned his living as a technical writer at Raytheon, and in the advertising department at Prudential Insurance until the doctoral degree got him a full professorship at Northeastern University in Boston, where he began to write seriously. His first novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript," sold within three weeks of completion. Over the next five years, Mr. Parker wrote four more Spenser novels, each increasingly successful. Finally in 1979, he was able to quit teaching and devote himself full time to writing.

So clearly and consciously did Mr. Parker consider himself an heir of Chandler, that the Chandler estate in 1988 asked him to complete a 30-page manuscript left uncompleted at Chandler's death. The result was "Poodle Springs," a novel that carries both authors' names on its title page. It was panned by the New York Times Book Review as "a chaos of tawdry shortcuts." Mr. Parker, who claimed not to read reviews of his work, nevertheless wrote a sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep," calling it "Perchance to Dream."

Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Joan Parker of Cambridge, and two sons.

In interview after interview, Mr. Parker refused the opportunity to make the idea of writing detective fiction mysterious.

"The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction," he told the Boston Globe magazine in 2007. "You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books."

Tell us why you read Parker.

By Patricia Sullivan  |  January 19, 2010; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  Patricia Sullivan  
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Next: Erich Segal, 'Love Story' author


Parker was my favorite writer. I will miss reading his books. So sorry to hear of his death

Posted by: LDTRPT25 | January 19, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

One of my all-time favorites. Spenser was the man we wanted; strong, loyal, smart.
Not quite the mystery novel but more the life and times of Spenser. Mr. Parker will be missed.

Posted by: srdem | January 19, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Parker wrote dialog in the Spenser novels that just crackles sometimes. It can be so spare, and so just-right. Other times the dialog is really funny, especially if you know the backstory of the characters from previous books. He also tackled race relations (in a particular setting), and had a pretty thoughtful and well-articulated philosopy of "what it means to be a man." I have loved the Spenser novels from the first one I read all those years ago. I love Boston; it's the first city I got to know. The other series are fine -- it's not easy to break out of such a long-running series and start 2 new ones -- but Spenser will always be the one for me.

Posted by: marareif | January 19, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

Parker's early novels had crisp dialogue, a gritty urban atmosphere, and a main character that was a modern concept of the private eye: an anti-hero who operated by his own ethical code, but carried a cool, and unsympathetic view on the status quo of modern social norms. In an existential way his character appreciated the simple things of life: food, drink, companionship - but there was no longing for anything more. The intelligence and education in Parker's private eye always allowed him to question existence and purpose, as many of us do in our daily lives, making Parker's Spenser endearing to his fans, including myself.

Posted by: steven7753 | January 19, 2010 1:48 PM | Report abuse

His early books were quite something. It wasn't just Spenser, it also was his very contemporary relationship with Susan Silverman as well as his sometime partner in crime fighting, Hawk. Like most crime fiction writers, the series reached a point where the plots got more cartoonish and he had exhausted obvious directions for the relationship with Susan. Still, he was probably the most skilled mystery writer of the late 70s/early 80s and set a high bar for his contemporaries.

Posted by: thebuckguy | January 19, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Death knows no rules. Robert Parker and Erich Segal (who wrote Love Story, which is about as different from Spenser as can be imagined), one day apart.

Posted by: Blurgle | January 19, 2010 2:03 PM | Report abuse

Robert B. Parker once wrote the most piercing paragraph about suburban sprawl ever penned.

He wrote a run-on sentence (deliberately) describing the kooky visuals up along Route 1 in Saugus, Mass., where restaurants took on the shapes of sailing ships, Italian villas, and there was even lifesize plastic cows on the lawn of the Hilltop Steakhouse. The tagline on the paragraph: "Maybe Squanto had made a mistake."

I'll miss Spenser novels. I haven't yet opened "The Professional." I'll get to it this week.

Posted by: bs2004 | January 19, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Parker understood that less is more. And he loved Joan. The next time I have a cocktail in the bar of the (former) Ritz, I will toast both of them.

Posted by: annestellwagen | January 19, 2010 2:52 PM | Report abuse

I just finished "The Professional." The back cover photo of Parker showed him looking tired and a bit old. He wasn't with his dog--always a staple. A sad premonition, most likely. RIP, good sir. You were a great storyteller, and I love Boston.

Posted by: DMDunkle | January 19, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

It his later years he was able to give you a complete character in half a page. (double spaced too !). I don't know another author who could do that. You will be missed.

Posted by: Kurama40 | January 19, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

His writing, like that of most crime novelists and science fiction writers, was an acquired taste. I think I was fortunate in that the first Parker novels I read were from the Spenser series shortly after his first books, giving him a chance (to me) to work out his early writing quirks. I was hooked on his writing and frequently re-read his books. At one point I thought he was in a mold of the Richard Prather who wrote the Shell Scott series (well beyond the Carter Brown lead characters), but as I read more (and as he became a better writer - said with humor), I thought of Mr. Parker as a successor to Mickey Spillane and Spenser as a successor to Mike Hammer.

I'll miss new books by Mr. Parker. Hopefully his books won't fade from bookstore shelves the way the books of Messers Prather, Brown, and Spillane have, though I expect that, as book stores downsize, there will be fewer and fewer people picking up what looks like an interesting book and take it to the sales counter. Somehow reading the back cover of a paperback or skimming through pages to decide if you want to buy the book isn'the same with an on-line version, and I think sales of Mr. Parker's books will take a significant drop, as will the number of new readers to his many books.

Posted by: Dungarees | January 19, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

RIP, Mr. Parker--Like somebody said, the Spencer series collapsed towards the end--He was clearly mailing the last few in; but he was always a craftsman of some considerable skill, and Parker at his worst beat most crime writers at their best

Posted by: fossettj | January 19, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

This is indeed very sad news. My heartfelt condolences to his family. I could never read a Spenser novel without laughing out loud at least a few times. He was a master of so many things, including the skewering of academics. He and Tony Hillerman will always be at the top of my list for mystery writers.

Posted by: coolstar | January 19, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

I should add: Spenser was the man so many of us wanted to grow up to be.

Posted by: coolstar | January 19, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I was, as a total Chandlerphile, let down immensely when Parker took over "Poodle Springs" and then his awful rendering of "The Big Sleep" sequel. I'm sorry, but whatever Parker did right for Spenser & Jesse Stone, he did wrong for Philip Marlowe. Parker just didn't have Chandler's hold on Marlowe, and even his hold on him was tenuous at the end as poor a novel as "Playback" was and the beginning of "Poodle Springs." Parker had a heavy lift, as Kingsly Amis did in writing after Ian Fleming; his Bond a 'lighter' version than the original. Marlowe had one master, and he passed in 1959.

Posted by: kirinbeer96701 | January 19, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

I was introduced to Mr. Parker's work with "Looking for Rachel Wallace" and was so delighted that I backtracked to "The Godwulf Manuscript" and have read my way through every single word this great master wrote. His characters always transcend genre, and I will miss them as if I knew them personally. Fortunately, my library is stocked and can be revisited. Spenser, Jesse, Sunny, Hawk, Susan -- your creator's voice is stilled, but yours will live on.

Posted by: WPGoddessofmusic | January 19, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

I hate being nitpicky, but here goes: Parker won the Edgar Allan Poe Award, not Edgar Allen Poe. It's a very common mistake, but given that Poe just had his 201st birthday, it must be pointed out.

I agree with the other posters about the earlier Spenser novels being far stronger. It seems to happen to anyone who does a series.

I did not know that Parker had been a professor of English. I am willing to bet, then, that the creation of Hawk owes something to Love and Death in the American novel, in which the critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out what three of the most influential authors in American lit have in common. James Fenimore Cooper (The Leatherstocking Tales), Herman Melville(Moby Dick) and Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) all wrote books in which a white man and a man of color flee civilization together. It's no coincidence that Hawk is African-American.

Posted by: jhpurdy | January 19, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I had the great good fortune to meet Dr. Parker several years ago at an informal book signing/get together in Canton, MA.

One could see the similarities in his speech with that of his Spenser character and everyone present was smiling as they left.

He will be missed not just by his family and friends but by the millions of his extended family, ie the readers he has touched.

Posted by: oaky | January 19, 2010 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for pointing that out, jhpurdy. We will fix. Here's something that won't fit into our print version but I thought the blog posters might enjoy; quotes from the meals in some of Parker's books. This came from a 1998 piece in

Boneless chicken breasts cooked "with wine and butter and cream, and mushrooms." Served with a salad and a "dressing made with lime juice and mint, olive oil, honey, and wine vinegar." –THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT

German sausages with green apples slices dipped in flour and fried in the sausage fat. Served with "coarse rye bread and wild strawberry jam." – THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT

Spaghetti tossed with steamed broccoli and spiced pistachio oil made from a well-blended mixture of "two garlic cloves...parsley...basil... kosher salt...oil...and a handful of shelled pistachios." – LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE

Hot pumpkin soup served with "cold asparagus with green herb mayonnaise" on a bed of red lettuce, as a side to pheasant with raspberry vinegar sauce and "saffron pilaf with white and wild rice and pignolias," and sour cherry cobbler with Vermont cheddar cheese as dessert. –CEREMONY

Yellow eye baked beans served with cornbread and "Iron Horse Champagne." –CHANCE

Spenser’s famous corn cakes made with "equal parts cornmeal and corn flour," eggs, milk, baking powder, cooked on an oiled griddle and served with warm maple syrup. –CEREMONY

Pork tenderloin brushed with honey and rosemary and roasted. Served with corn flour biscuits and a "salad of white beans and peppers...doused with some olive oil and cilantro." –DOUBLE DEUCE
Buffalo tenderloin "marinated in red wine and garlic." Served with "fiddle head ferns, corn pudding, and red potatoes cooked with bay leaf," but only after an appetizer of salmon roe "with toast and some creme fraiche." –PAPER DOLL

Avocado and mango slices served on endive leaves with a "dressing of first-press olive oil and lemon juice and honey." – PLAYMATES

Duck breast "sliced on the diagonal and served rare, onion marmalade, brown rice, broccoli tossed with a spoonful of sesame tahini." –STARDUST

Grilled lemon and rosemary chicken served with "brown rice with pignolias, assorted fresh vegetables lightly steamed and dressed with Spenser’s famous honey-mustard splash, blue corn bread..." –CRIMSON JOY

Stir-fried bell peppers and mushrooms with "a little olive oil and a dash of raspberry vinegar" served over spinach fettucine and topped with walnut meats. –THE WIDENING GYRE

Steak grilled with Cajun spices, cut into squares, mixed with mushrooms, sweet peppers, celery, scallions, and corn combined "with a little sugar and chopped cilantro." Served over romaine lettuce. –SUDDEN MISCHIEF

Posted by: Patricia Sullivan | January 19, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

A really sad day in the mystery field. Parker's novels were extremely fast moving and humorous. The dialogue was crisp and many times funny. His characters were spot on. Goodbye to Spenser, Susan, Hawk, Jesse and Sunny. RIP Mr. Parker.

Posted by: agg227 | January 19, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Parker was one of the best writers out there. As a crime novel series, Spenser was the best effort since the great John D. McDonald "Travis McGee" crime novels of the 60s and 70s.

His other recent literary creation, Jesse Stone, was excellent writing that picked his game back up when "Spenser" was starting to go stale. Parkers minimization of conversation, the confidence he had that the characters and scenes were drawn well enough that readers could "intuit" right along with the characters was very well done.

Curiously, the Jesse Stone in the books is far younger than as played by Tom Selleck in the movies, but the decision to cast Selleck was brilliant. It is a wonderful Selleck in a memorable role.

Posted by: ChrisFord1 | January 19, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

I was sadened to hear of Robert Parker's passing. His books provided me many pleasurable hours. As others have already commented, he seemed to run out of gas some years ago. I never did a word count, but some of his recent chapters were only a few pages long. I religiously purchased all his books; finishing the recent ones in an hour or two-- never to be read again. His early works were quite different, and I have re-read them 3-4 times. Despite knowing the plot, his early writing was always fresh. R.I.P. You will be missed.

Posted by: Benny4 | January 19, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

To end at the desk, what a true committment to craft.

Thank you Mr. Parker for all the good years of fun, fast and entertaining reads. I love them all, especially the beginning Spensers. Spenser, Hawk, Susan and Pearl plus Jesse and Sunny will rest with the best. Blesssings.

Posted by: jumpinjavelina | January 19, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

To end at the desk, what a true committment to craft.

Thank you Mr. Parker for all the good years of fun, fast and entertaining reads. I love them all, especially the beginning Spensers. Spenser, Hawk, Susan and Pearl plus Jesse and Sunny will rest with the best. Blessings to Mr. Parker's loved ones, he will be missed.

Posted by: jumpinjavelina | January 19, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

I was very saddened to hear of his death. My heart goes out to his family.

I started reading his books about the time "A Catskill Eagle" came out; though I've come to realize that that was an atypical work, in its lack of a mystery and tight focus on Spenser's relationship with Susan and Hawk, it's remained my favorite work of his. I think because the characters were so well developed in his earlier work, I've not been bothered by the sparer style of his recent books. Even in those works that he still conveys character well, and his pithy comments still remind me of Raymond Chandler.

Having come from the Boston area, I also appreciated the New England references. I was amused when a house I regularly passed on the way to work was identified as a brothel! I'll really miss not having several works per year by him to read. I'm grateful he wrote so much and gave me so many hours of enjoyment.

Posted by: JohnCD | January 19, 2010 7:54 PM | Report abuse

I'm a Canadian who began corresponding with Robert Parker after reading the Godwulf Manuscripts in the late '70's. I think that although he was a city man he was a master of the western genre and his characters were so well written I have unchanging pictures in my imagination of what they look like. Once in a letter to him I urged him to write faster and he replied, "I'm writing as fast as I can." I read Auden tonight, "In Memory of W.B. Yeats", especially this passage: Time that is intolerant,
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives,
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views
And will pardon Paul Claudel
Pardons him for writing well...

Thank you Bob for writing well.

Posted by: mnmoc | January 20, 2010 10:49 PM | Report abuse

Parker was the best at characters and dialogue, which is why I read him and collect his books. Personally, I will miss him and his creativity. I look forward to the last few books which will ultimately be printed. My heart-felt sympathies to his wife, Joan. While I do not know her at all, I do believe that she and Parker enjoyed great passion together in all things. There is no question that Parker has made me a better writer just by reading him.

Posted by: glenngraves125 | January 26, 2010 7:53 AM | Report abuse

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