Wednesday, January 20, 2010

RIP - Robert B. Parker

Yesterday, popular and acclaimed mystery writer Robert B. Parker passed away at his writing desk in his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 77 years old.

Parker first gained fame in 1973 when he published his first novel The Godwulf Manuscript, which featured the gourmet cooking, ex-boxing, literary and sport loving Boston private detective referred to only by his last name; Spenser. The book did well, and Spenser was an indelible figure, a classic wise-cracking private eye with with a world weary demeanor and a code of nobility. More Spenser novels followed, with the character fast becoming the heir to Philip Marlowe.

In the 1985 a Spenser TV series debuted, starring Robert Urich as the detective and shot in and around Boston. Though Spenser: For Hire was well received, Parker was disappointed with the final product (though he championed the performances of the cast), and ABC was unhappy with the high cost of the series. It was cancelled in 1988. A spin off series called A Man Called Hawk, focusing on Avery Brooks' hitman Hawk, only lasted one season. There would be a series of TV Movies made in the 1990's based on the novels featuring Urich and Brooks in their Spenser: For Hire roles. Starting in 1999 A&E produced a series of TV Movies based on several Spenser novels featuring Joe Mantegna as the detective , which were marginally well-received.

Meanwhile, the intensely prolific Parker continued publishing Spenser novels almost annually, although his incredible work ethic allowed him to publish over works as well. In 1989 the Raymond Chandler estate authorized Parker to complete Chandler's last unfinished Philip Marlowe novel, Poodle Springs, and in 1991 he published his sequel to the classic novel The Big Sleep, Perchance to Dream.

In the late 1990s, during an incredibly productive period, Parker added to his stable of recurring characters by beginning his series of novels featuring small town police chief Jesse Stone, and another series featuring female PI Sunny Randall. Both have attained their own measure of popularity, with the Stone series being adapted for a series of TV Movies starring Tom Selleck. He also wrote short stories, essays and articles and non-fiction, as well as switching genres to the Western and creating yet another series of novels, these featuring gunslingers for hire Everett Hitch and Virgil Cole. The first novel, Appaloosa, was adapted to a feature film directed by Ed Harris.

Over time, Parker became most acclaimed for the complexity he brought to the private eye genre, namely for his ability to create and examine male to male relationships such as Spenser and Hawk or Hitch and Cole. The Spenser novels were also lauded for their depiction of a meaningful long-term relationship between Spenser and Susan Silverman, one that has suffered estrangements and deepened over time, without resorting to the cliche of marriage.

I grew up on the Spenser novels (of which there were 38 published by the time of his death), and they were absolutely a massive influence on me as a reader. Parker and Chandler led to my life-long love of pulp fiction and film noir. Parker was a machine of a writer, churning out enjoyable, if somewhat turgid, mystery novels that anyone could read and enjoy, with characters that had an undeniable reality. It's fitting he died at his desk, because that's how he would have wanted to go; with his boots on.

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