The news that Robert B. Parker died on Monday of a heart attack at age 77 (he was sitting at his desk writing at the time) comes as a shock to hard-boiled fiction fans everywhere. Parker wrote more than 60 books in multiple genres, but for most of his fans, his career was defined by the Spenser series, starring the sasssy Boston private eye–a gourmet-cooking descendant of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe. The Godwulf Manuscript began the series in 1973, and the sequels followed year after year, each distinguished by the world-class banter spewing forth not only from the quick-witted Spenser but also from his longtime lover, psychiatrist Susan Silverman, and his longer-time best pal, the thug-with-a-heart-of-gold Hawk.
Many reviewers have opined in recent years that the Spenser series had jumped the shark, the formula running on fumes, even the signature dialogue turned punchless. There’s an element of truth to this view, but it’s equally true for most series that attempt to freeze time (Spenser, a Korean War vet, was a perpetual 40-year-old). Yes, many of us Spenser devotees (full disclosure: I’ve always liked Spenser, but I’d trade him in a minute for Hawk) have drifted away from the series in recent years, but I never stayed away for long. The easy comfort of reading a Spenser novel–the dialogue, though predictable, was never punchless–always drew me back eventually, and occasionally I was delightfully surprised by what I found. So don’t buy completely the conventional view that only early Spenser is good Spenser.
Read Potshot, from 2001, for example, in which Spenser, Hawk, and a rainbow coalition of fellow tough guys clean up the town of Potshot, Arizona. Think The Magnificent Seven with just a touch of Blazing Saddles. The joke throughout is that while the painfully sensitive Spenser laboriously comes up with plans that will limit bloodshed, his cronies clamor for carnage. (As Hawk puts it, rolling his eyes, “Being your faithful Afro-American companion ain’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”) Or read The Professional, 2009, the latest Spenser novel, in which Parker offers an homage of sorts to Of Mice and Men that ends with a genuinely poignant finale–might even prompt a few hard-boiled tears.
So what is it that kept me coming back to Spenser and leaves me feeling so bereft today? It’s certainly not realism. I love the dialogue, but nobody talks that way–we’re not tough enough, quick enough, and we certainly can’t spout literary allusions well enough. But if we were quick enough, it sure would be fun to talk like Spenser and to hang out with Susan and Hawk, and let’s face it, it might also be fun to beat up the bad guys in our lives every now and then. Parker gave us the chance to do that, and I, for one, have enjoyed every lightning left hook and every staccato slap of perfectly timed repartee. I’ll be looking forward to the publication of two posthumous Spenser novels now in production, and I have a hunch I’ll continue to revisit my old favorites, too. Parker may have left us, but Spenser will always be a flat-bellied 40.