Robert Parker Brings a Soft Touch to the Hard-Boiled School of Mystery Writing
05/07/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
The calendar said it was spring, but the weather said different. Boston was being battered by a nasty nor'easter, and 10 miles north in Lynnfield, the snow swirled out of a canescent sky. Mystery writer Robert Parker was piloting his Subaru station wagon along Summer Street when suddenly about 50 feet ahead a huge fir tree cracked at its base and began to topple across the road, pulling power lines along with it. As the tree fell noiselessly to the ground—completely blocking the road—Parker calmly stepped on the brakes, neatly executed a three-point turn and headed off in the other direction. "We didn't really want to go that way anyway," he said laconically.
There you have Robert Parker in a nutshell—cool, unflappable and wry. In these respects and many others, Parker is not unlike his favorite literary character: a wisecracking, Boston-based private dick by the name of Spenser. Spenser has no first name and spells his surname, as he's fond of telling people, "with an s, like the poet." He's the successor to Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer—the kind of guy who can shoot it out with some toughs on the Mass. Ave. bridge, cook a pork tenderloin en croute and use a word like "canescent" (which means whitish or hoary) and get away with it.
As Spenser's creator, the question Parker is asked most often—and, not surprisingly, the question he is most tired of—is, "How much of Robert Parker is there in Spenser?" Parker has come up with dozens of different answers over the years, but the simple truth is that he doesn't know. "All fiction," he says, "is to some extent biographical. It would be laughable to deny a connection." Laughable indeed. Spenser likes to cook; Parker likes to cook. Spenser jogs and works out at the gym; Parker jogs and works out at the gym. Parker is 51, Spenser about the same. "I can do all the things Spenser can do," concludes Parker, "but he can do them better."
Not that Parker is doing all that badly, mind you. Last month saw the publication of the 11th Spenser novel, Valediction, and the 12th, A Catskill Eagle, is well on its way. His agreement with Delacorte Press brings in six-figure yearly royalties. Hollywood has bought two of his books, and he is working on a deal for a Spenser TV series, though none of the projects has gone before the cameras. And while Parker has always had a small but fervent cult following, with the rerelease of the entire Spenser series in the past year his readership has expanded tremendously. "I like what I do. I'm proud of it. And," he adds with characteristic self-confidence just this side of arrogance, "I think I'm very good at it."
Of late, however, success has had a somewhat hollow ring for Parker. Eighteen months ago, he separated from his wife of 28 years, Joan, who works for the state board of education. It is a painful topic, one he refuses to discuss. "I could be happy never typing another word," he told an interviewer in 1981, "but I couldn't be happy without Joan." Their two grown sons live away from home, so Parker has his three-bedroom house in Lynnfield to himself, with a dog, a cat and a typewriter for company.
Though he isn't strict about it, Parker tries to sit down every morning and bang out five pages on his ancient Royal. "It's hard to get your ass in the chair," he says. "If you meet somebody who says he loves to write, that means he doesn't write." Parker's conversation is sprinkled with allusions to such knotty authors as Melville and Faulkner, yet his own style is as spare as the bare-floored study he works in. Parker likes to think of himself as "the great compressionist" and strives to pack "the most meaning into the fewest words."
Born in Springfield, Mass., Parker grew up across the state in New Bedford, where his father was a telephone company executive. He traces his interest in the detective genre to reading pulp magazines as an adolescent. After attending Colby College in Maine (where he met Joan) and spending two years as an Army radioman in Korea, Parker returned to the States to write advertising copy and technical material for various companies. Finding this unfulfilling, he went back to school for his Ph.D.; his dissertation, tellingly, was on the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald. Teaching English at several Boston-area colleges gave him the time to bring Spenser to life. "I think he'd always been there," says Parker. Three weeks after he finished his first book, The Godwulf Manuscript, in 1973, it was accepted by a publisher. And Parker hasn't left his typewriter since.
Still, because of his separation from Joan, these are tough times for him. Like Spenser, Parker has a personal code, and the best way through this period of "emotional puzzlement" would seem to be sticking as close to this code as possible. "Yes," he admits, "I do have a code of conduct; no, I can't capsulize it." But he gave some indication of its content five years ago when he revealed that he "grew up inculcated with certain assumptions like: Men don't cry, you don't complain about things, and if you've got to bleed, bleed internally."
So while he may be bleeding internally, Robert Parker continues to go about his business—whether that means heading off on a two-week tour to promote his new book (as he will next week) or putting his ass in the chair and turning out five lively pages a day. "I know few people," says Parker, "better able to take care of themselves." Spenser, of course, would be one.