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.