Spenser, orphaned

One of my favorite writers died unexpectedly on Monday – Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser detective novels. 

Parker didn’t fit the pattern of authors I typically like. For one thing, I don’t usually read crime fiction. And most of my favorite authors tend to write nuanced psychological novels: The rare detective novels I like are by people like David Liss who offer so much fascinating historical and psychological detail that the crime part seems almost incidental. 

Parker’s Spenser novels, on the other hand, are pure noir detective. They’re pretty predictable and formulaic. And they are light: I used to marvel at how much white space his publisher let him pad his pages with. His chapters are only three or four pages long. You can get through a Spenser novel in about 87 minutes.

But what a wonderful 87 minutes! 

Parker’s books were like a welcoming, dependable friend. I could count on a moderately interesting plot, amusing dialogue, a smidgen of social commentary, but most of all the familiar and very engaging voice of Spenser as narrator.

Spenser was a classic insider-turned-outsider – onetime cop who couldn’t live with the rules and hypocrisy of the system, and so struck out on his own. He was both arrogant and self-deprecating at the same time. For instance, Spenser describes trailing a suspect in the most recent novel, The Professional:

I went every day to Pinnacle Fitness.  I had to be careful. If I improved my body further, the paparazzi would begin following me. So I worked out sparingly and spent a lot of time watching the snugly dressed young women, looking for exercise tips.

Spenser was cynical about institutions, politicians, the rich and pretentious, the young and beautiful, to name just a few. He was happy to diss his own clients to their face – often with such deadpan wit that they didn’t even realize they were being mocked. Yet under that cynical surface he carried a strong personal code of ethics.

I loved the repartee. I loved the point in nearly every book where Spenser would do something risky, ill-advised or economically self-destructive to follow his code of ethics. I loved the spare writing: For aspiring writers seeking a vaccine against verbosity, Parker is right up there with Hemingway.

I also loved Spenser’s continuity and evolution through the 37 novels Parker wrote about him, starting in 1973. Spenser developed friendships with Boston police and gangsters who learned to respect his peculiar integrity. He settled into a deep unmarried monogamy with psychologist Susan Silverman.

But I wanted him to evolve more. After all these years, Spenser was getting middle-aged. Maybe more than middle-aged. Occasionally there were hinted references at this: He didn’t have the physical stamina that he used to have. But I kept waiting for age to hit him seriously – the detective who could no longer detect.

What would that mean for his self-identity? His life? I was tired of the same romantic routines with Susan, the same joking conversations with his tough killer buddy Hawk.

I was ready for Spenser to grow up, by which I meant grow old.

I thought it was coming. I thought Parker would face up to it, just as Spenser always faced up to the dark side of things. I hoped Parker would bring the series to an end – a conscious, plotted, controlled end.

And now he won’t. Spenser is effectively orphaned, a creation without a creator. The New York Times obituary said that there are two more Spenser novels in unspecified stages of the publishing process. But Parker wasn’t anticipating his own death; he was apparently in excellent health. So I suspect these two last novels will be more of the same. Which will be lovely, for the 87 minutes it takes me to read each one, but will leave things feeling unfinished.

Spenser the lost boy. Remaining 65 – or whatever age he is – forever.

I am so sad that Robert Parker is gone. Because I love the books, and there won’t be any more after these next two. Because Parker was so talented and productive: The Times said that he died of a heart attack at his desk, where his routine was to write five pages every day except Sunday.

And because I won’t get to see Spenser grow old. We lost two people this week – both Parker and Spenser. And I won’t get to travel any further down the road with either of them.

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6 Responses to “Spenser, orphaned”

  1. johnmangels Says:

    One of my favorites too — though at times it was just a bit too predictable and repetative in what went on. My wife liked his Sunny Randall series a bit better. But all his series main characters seemed to sound and act a bit like Spenser (with an “s”). Still, it was a wonderful main character. Independent. Tough. With rules that were followed without regard to the consequences. I’m very sad to see him go. I would have loved to see Spenser grow up. I’m not sure Parker would ever have gotten there. On the other hand, would you really want Peter Pan or Puff (the dragon) to grow up?

  2. susan milligan Says:

    Thanks for this wonderful tribute, Ilana. I loved Sunny too and Jesse Stone. I will miss them all. I can’t say that I wanted Spenser to grow old, however. Isn’t it wonderful how much pleasure a writer can bring to so many people through a world created through his imagination!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      So this raises an interesting question about beloved characters in fiction:

      Do we want to see them change?

      Or do we want them to stay as they are, as we know them and love them, forever?

      Keats on the lovers on that Grecian urn: “Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

  3. Steve Says:

    Thanks for stopping by and seeing the minds of Too Old Crew! For me, Spenser was about the ability to see right from wrong from multiple angles and not allowing the rules to prevent you from doing the right thing.

    Then the TV show was all about Avery “Hawk” Brooks as Spensers connection to the underworld. We all need to have some shady friends that walk the line between good/bad

  4. Ed Says:

    Nice post. I think a lot of us were at least a bit jealous that Spenser never aged (I mean, come on, he was in incredible shape and got to live a satisfying life on his terms … I mean, even Mike Rowe is getting older). And I think if Parker had decided to write about Spenser getting old(er), he could have written a great book. But it would have been his last Spenser novel (at least, I think Parker would have seen it that way). Now, I think Parker could have written lots more Jesse Stone, Sunny Randall and Virgil Cole/Everett Hitch books. But I think Parker wanted to keep writing Spenser books, so Spenser stayed comfortably frozen in age.

    I also really like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, whose oddball genre of social commentary amusing science fantasy. Their writing reminds me, in some odd way, of Parker’s, and they now share another macabre similarity; Adams died several years ago of a heart attack, and Pratchett has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and will soon have to stop writing soon. By the way, I recommend Adams “Last Chance to See”.

  5. johnmangels Says:

    Read “Split Image” today. Not Spenser, but a goodby to Sunny and the Chief in Paradise …

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