The Chronicle Review

Robert B. Parker, the Hard-Boiled Professor

Jade-Snow Moy, Bloomberg News

Robert Parker in 2004
January 27, 2010

Of the many crime writers who have tried on Raymond Chandler's mantle, few wore it as easily as Robert B. Parker. Parker, who died on January 18, wrote more than 60 books, many of them recounting the adventures of a private eye named Spenser (there is no first name). Parker's Spenser books form the centerpiece of a body of work that bears Chandler's torch through the late 20th century and into the 21st, where it continues to light the main roads of the hard-boiled tradition.

Spenser's name echoes the Renaissance poet's and thus invokes visions of the Red Cross Knight saving distressed damsels and battling for virtue in The Faerie Queene. Chandler, too, saw his detective, Philip Marlowe, as a knight, a "shop-soiled Galahad" toiling in a world that "wasn't a game for knights" anymore. Chandler (1888-1959) was canonized in his own time, and his popularity gave great influence to his vision of the tough guy as a principled crusader down the mean streets. Before that, as Chandler famously complained, detective stories simply rendered "problems in logic and deduction," leading to "utterly incomprehensible" fictional scenarios that required figuring out "how somebody stabbed Mrs. Pottington Postlethwaite III with the solid platinum poniard just as she flatted on the top note of the 'Bell Song' from Lakmé in the presence of 15 ill-assorted guests." Chandler and his peers "gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons."

Chandler's vision prospered under Parker's care. Like Marlowe, Parker's Spenser is an idealist who expresses his hope for the world through his detective work. But Spenser displays none of Marlowe's often sour outlook, and none of the cynicism that Chandler gave the character during the 1950s, his final decade. Instead, Spenser seems always bemused, even when he's under fire, and Parker updates Marlowe's wisecracking, metaphor-filled argot with lots of humor.

Spenser jokes constantly, usually through banter, and often in the form of literary allusions that only he (and the reader) get—like when he greets the villain of A Catskill Eagle (1985) with "Ah, Kurtz," even though he knows the character's real name perfectly well. (The invocation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness goes otherwise unremarked upon, but serves its purpose by suggesting the ambiguities of evil.) The Spenser series is spangled with such references, though Parker never exactly explained how Spenser, an ex-boxer and ex-cop, managed to acquire such a tony literary sensibility.

Such familiarity with the Western literary canon proceeded directly from Parker's own. The author held a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University and wrote his 1971 doctoral thesis on Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald at a time when few scholars took genre writing seriously. Parker argued in his dissertation that hard-boiled detectives belong to a romantic tradition that began with James Fenimore Cooper and his frontier hero of the Leatherstocking novels, Natty Bumppo.

Parker taught full time for more than a decade, rising to the rank of full professor at Northeastern University. Although he left the classroom in 1979, when his Spenser novels gained marketplace traction, he never ceased to teach. His writing amounts to a decades-long primer on the meaning of "tough." For Parker, tough was a stance, an ethos, a code, and a worldview, all at once. Through his characters, he acted as the crime genre's professor of hard-boiled studies for nearly 40 years.

Parker consciously dismantled the stereotype of the hard-boiled tough guy in all his books, and then reassembled it with only the parts he liked, creating detectives who update the image for more progressive times. The essential Parker tenet was that you must be tough, but also soft. The two must coexist, but tough comes first. It means, as Spenser puts it in Thin Air (1995), being able to "control feelings so you won't be tripping over them while you're trying to do something useful."

Soft, on the other hand, means that you have to know yourself fully. Spenser's longtime partner, Susan Silverman, admits to him that "you let me see your emotions from time to time." Parker's tough-soft characters understand the value of home and hearth, and of children, even if they don't have their own. In Early Autumn (1981), for example, Spenser becomes the guardian of a young child, a responsibility he accepts and takes seriously. Tough-soft is also tolerant. Parker made Spenser ostentatiously gender- and colorblind, working with and trusting a diverse cast of people, particularly gay tough guys, one of whom is a police officer who appears in a number of books.

Above all, tough-soft must be principled. Spenser is so often willing to put financial motives aside that an observer marvels in Small Vices (1997) that having a paying client must be a "nice change of pace." In short, Parker's detectives—he maintained two other series in addition to the Spenser franchise—are hard-boiled humanists.

That humanism is visible in the earliest hard-boiled writing, but it became more and more explicit as the fiction reflected social changes of the New Deal, the cold war, and the increasing urgency with which crime writing confronted the time-worn stereotypical ideal of the American family. In Parker's books, the latter concern is lit up as if in neon.

Like Chandler, Parker wrote by the scene rather than relying on intricate puzzle-plots. Parker's scenes are dialogue driven, as he specialized in repartee that ranges from belligerent to salacious. Accused of being fired from the police force for "hotdogging," Spenser replies—with professorial sarcasm—"I like to call it inner-directed behavior."

Spenser says the things that most of us only imagine saying to authority figures. He does so with the perfect presence of mind that we envy, and he always gets away with it. To be able to face down power brokers, bureaucrats, and bureaucracies with such ease makes Spenser into a conqueror of soul-crushing mechanization. His casual courage in the face of power of all kinds makes him into what Hammett—speaking of his own creation, Sam Spade—called "a dream man," one who is "able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with."

Though his own writing evolved little over scores of books, Parker was very important to the development of hard-boiled writing today. Early hard-boiled mysteries experimented with a callousness that proved hard to maintain, even for a tough guy. Sam Spade, arguably the quintessential hard-boiled character, turns his lover in for murder in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon (1930). The strain shows, but he won't "play the sap" for her. Chandler's Marlowe lets his pain show more clearly, and hard-boiled characters invented by later writers like David Goodis, Chester Himes, and Ross Macdonald demonstrate less and less of the vaunted hard-boiled detachment, showing instead a vulnerability and a deepening commitment to people, communities, and love relationships.

Parker's large body of work—which includes two other series characters and various stand-alone works—refines the movement of the contemporary hard-boiled toward a more sentimental center. That refinement has a certain didactic aspect, as Spenser is a deliberate inversion of the hard-boiled image: He's monogamous, domestic (and a good cook), and thoroughly sympathetic. His violence is "in the service of compassion." He is so sensitive that Susan calls him a "good therapist."

Loyalty is the key. Not only does Spenser turn away numerous sexual offers to stay true to Susan, he also demonstrates the same depth of commitment to his friends, especially Hawk, the debonair black outlaw who shares Spenser's values and his trust even though he works on the other side of the law. "Hawk is a bad man," Spenser explains in Promised Land (1976). "But he keeps his word."

"I am a happier man than Chandler was," Parker remarked a few years ago. Parker's positive outlook surely contributed to Spenser's endurance, but the character's domestic centeredness and upbeat attitude also means that he rarely gets upset, unbalanced, or depressed. As a result, there's a general lack of tension in the series. Chandler's Marlowe balances on the edge of despair, barely clinging to a hope planted in his work. Spenser always believes in what he does. That may be one reason for the failure of Parker's effort—undertaken at the invitation of the Chandler estate—to complete one of the master's manuscript fragments. Poodle Springs (1989) was a critical failure, as was Perchance to Dream (1991), Parker's ill-conceived sequel to Chandler's The Big Sleep.

Parker's safe optimism also kept his writing from greatness. Series characters can be hard to sustain: For one thing, it's hard to talk about the same characters in new ways all the time. Parker described Hawk's shaved head as "gleaming" approximately 1,226 times by my uncertified count. After a few too many of those gleams, I've felt tempted on more than one occasion to pour a bottle of Mr. Clean over Parker's own head.

But the chief problem for a long-running series writer is finding new things for those long-running characters to do, to allow them to change while also keeping them familiar to readers. Successful crime writers have dealt with that problem in different ways. Walter Mosley inserts his popular detective, Easy Rawlins, into different historical eras. John D. MacDonald allowed his series character, Travis McGee, to age slowly over the course of more than 20 novels.

Parker aged Spenser a bit, but he mainly changed his own menu by experimenting with other characters, even as he kept Spenser's story going. Jesse Stone, a series character introduced in 1997 in Night Passage, represents the tough side of Spenser minus the mordant wit. Though laconic, he's in many ways a more emotional character because his feelings are described in the third person in ways that reveal more than the character can himself. Sunny Randall, Parker's female detective, displays Spenser's emotional side along with a female version of Spenser's humor, but without the macho.

Parker created the character of Sunny in 1999 with the idea that Helen Hunt would play her on the screen. That hasn't happened, but Robert Urich played Spenser in a television series that ran for three seasons, beginning in 1985 (with Avery Brooks also taking a memorable turn as Hawk), and Tom Selleck plays Jesse Stone in seven television movies. Although he wrote the occasional screenplay, Parker wasn't a movie or television writer. Nor did he stray far from the crime genre. Unlike his contemporaries James Ellroy and Dennis Lehane, much-decorated crime writers who have gone on to wider fictional canvasses, Parker wrote his series mysteries, steadily, reliably, and influentially.

Lehane credits Parker for teaching him "how to be funny on the page. He taught me how to be succinct. He taught me how to give voice to that wonderfully jaded Boston sarcasm that came out in his books." Another bestselling crime writer, Harlan Coben, said of Parker, "When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."

Critics have been generous, but not as effusive. "Parker avows continuity" with the hard-boiled tradition, says Stephen Knight in a recent history of crime fiction. Knight's take is typical; critics place Parker in the distinguished company of Chandler and Macdonald, but as an epigone (as the literary critic Charles J. Rzepka puts it), not a peer.

Parker didn't always challenge himself, but his fluency came from his honest commitment to the values of his characters. "When I began," Parker admitted in 2005, "I was consciously trying to emulate Raymond Chandler." But he found his own voice as a committed teacher of hard-boiled ethics. That calling, enacted in his fiction, drew on Parker's earlier professorial identity. He could be conventionally disdainful of professoring, but it penetrated his creative bones. He allowed that his literature Ph.D. "probably informed my imagination and maybe gave my writing what Chandler said Hammett lacked, 'the sound of music from beyond the hill.'"

Even at age 77, Parker continued to write six days a week, turning out five pages in the morning and five more in the afternoon, finishing books faster than his publisher could issue them. "I plan to keep writing until I die," Parker told an interviewer in 2000. He did just that, collapsing at his desk. As a result of his unflagging industry, there are four of his books in the posthumous pipeline, including two Spenser novels. Without a formal coda then, Spenser will end as he began: at work, aiming to improve the world, one job at a time.

Leonard Cassuto is a professor of English at Fordham University. His most recent book, "Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories" (Columbia University Press), was nominated for a 2009 Edgar Award.