Recently Spouse and I donated almost all of our Robert B Parker books to Mockingbird. This collection included nearly all the Spenser books, hardcover and paperback; all of the Jesse Stone novels; most of the Sunny Randall books and a couple of the westerns. We also donated Poodle Springs, the Raymond Chandler fragment that Parker finished.
In the late 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, the Spenser series was one of our favorites. We found the first two or three in paperback. From then on I bought them in hardcover as soon as I saw them.
By the mid-2000s, we were still reading Parker, but they didn’t deliver quite the same rush. Somehow Spenser and his girlfriend Susan Silverman were getting a little bit dated, a little less relevant. As one blogger put it, in a requiem for Parker, “First Spenser was cool, then he wasn’t.”
Spenser in the early books was a breath of fresh air. In the 1980s, women were still fighting for legal equality, for respect, for simple self-determination. Spenser, the very model of a hard-boiled detective, treated women with respect. His girlfriend, Brenda Loring, was smart, assertive, sexually independent. She took charge of her own life. Spenser punched the bad-guys, studied the clues, engaged in pithy banter… and cooked! He had home-made tomato sauce in his freezer, he made fresh bread to help himself think. (He also meditated by working the heavy bag or the speed bag at Henry Cimoli’s gym.) Spenser worked in an interesting place, too – not New York or LA, but Boston.
Brenda moved on and Susan Silverman moved in. Well, not exactly. She and Spenser never successfully lived together. Spenser had a black side-kick, but Hawk was a pretty independent side-kick, at least at first. Hawk was an intelligent thug-for-hire; a mercenary, an independent operator who would help Spenser for money. Sometimes, Hawk and Spenser were on opposite sides of a case, although they stopped short of drawing on each other. They may have been adversaries, but they respected each other. In those early books, Hawk was Spenser without limits.
In 1980, Looking for Rachel Wallace came out. Spenser is hired to protect Wallace, a prominent and outspoken lesbian writer and advocate. Wallace is defensive and distrustful of Spenser at first, expecting Spenser to have a knee-jerk, bigoted reaction to her sexual orientation. Parker uses this book to showcase Spenser’s open-mindedness, but he also created, in Rachel Wallace, a regular person; smart, competent, not evil, neurotic or “misguided.” If you think that’s no big deal, take a look at how John D MacDonald is writing lesbians in the late 1970s, in his Travis McGee books.
Susan Silverman is a high-school counsellor when we first meet her. She is smart, capable and driven. As the series progressed, Susan gets accepted into Harvard and pursues a PhD in psychology.
In those early books, Susan was the woman I wished I was. Hawk and Spenser were like Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles. They shared a bond (war), they were competent and strong. They are the “cool kids.” The plots revolved largely around the Boston mob, and often included forlorn, defiant children of shallow, self-indulgent parents.
Spenser has two other helpers; Boston cops Quirk and Belson. Unlike cops in other detective series of the time, they are smart, and honest. They are also realists. They are uncomfortable with Hawk, because Hawk does work outside the law. They are slightly more comfortable with Spenser, who used to be a cop, although an unsuccessful one. They also know that traditional justice has it limits, and sometimes they look the other way when they know Spenser and Hawk are going to take care of a problem.
All of these things made Spenser fun to read, but Parker’s prose was a signature, and became a trademark. He had a unique style of dialogue. It was sparse, clipped, to the point, using punctuation and timing to create inflection and demonstrate emotion, and a counterpoint to Spenser’s first-person narration, which was often philosophical and sometimes veered toward the poetic.
In a couple of the mid-80s books, the going gets rough for Spenser and Susan. Susan goes to the dark side for a while, but they reconcile, stronger than ever. However, by Crimson Joy, in 1988, things started shifting. They weren’t quite as fresh, as sparkling.
Parker wrote 40 Spenser novels. At his death, he had three series going, four if you consider the “young Spenser” books a separate one. In small ways, we caught up with Spenser over forty years. We all watched The Food Network. Men who were foodies were not new anymore. Spenser and Hawk, with their “cowboy code,” weren’t changing. Parker began adding characters as Spenser took jobs outside of the city. That was good news, as far as settings went. It was bad news in another way as Parker added characters who were just like Spenser and Hawk. It was almost a joke; the Hispanic Hawk; the Native American Hawk, the gay cop who is almost the gay Quirk just for a change of pace. In the Sunny Randall series, we have the Gay Hawk with Sunny’s friend Spike. They all speak in the same clipped cadence that Hawk and Spenser employ. It’s all very cowboy, but after forty books, it started to get tired.
Everything felt recycled. The stories all seemed similar. We’ve already talked about the characters, but the worst was that the women began to feel recycled; good and bad. Rita Fiore, an attorney, is Hawk with ovaries. Women, who had been realistic in the early books, were now shallow, usually prostitutes. The male main character loves one woman, not unlike Spenser and Susan, except in the case of Jesse Stone, his “one love” is the wrong woman. Sunny Randall, Parker’s female detective, is the “one true love” of a great guy who is the son of a mobster. In the Jesse Stone books, at least, characters are flawed. They screw up. They fall off the wagon. They sleep with the wrong person, or people.
Spenser, and Parker, gave us hours of enjoyment, but these are probably not books we’re going to read again. He created a classic style, and like many classics, lots of writers have copied it, or are, at least, incorporating it into their own work.
We won’t read those books again, but I am still grateful to Parker for his inventiveness, and for the hours of pleasure he gave us. Now those books are going out into the world again; maybe some new, young writer will be smitten by Spenser, or Parker’s prose, and find inspiration.