Robert B. Parker received his Ph.D. in 1971 from Boston University with a dissertation dissecting the private eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Two years later his first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, was published. The novel focuses on a gumshoe named Spenser (with no first name). While he pays tribute to Hammett's Sam Spade, Chandler's Philip Marlowe, and Macdonald's Lew Archer, Parker manages to create a style all his own expanding on the hard-boiled tradition. "Like Sam Spade, he is tough and often cynical. Like Philip Marlowe, he has a quick wit, an insolent tongue, and an observant eye for the pompous and absurd. Like Lew Archer, he frequently finds himself drawn into the personal lives of his clients," says David Geherin in his book Sons of Sam Spade. Spenser, however, unlike his predecessors who remain lonely and isolated after the close of a case, has a private life separate from his work.
In his second novel, God Save the Child (1974), Parker introduces Susan Silverman, who becomes Spenser's lover. In God Save the Child, Parker moves away from the self-conscious nod at the hard-boiled tradition in his first novel, and develops his style more fully. Parker handles the plot better than in his first effort, and sketches even minor characters brilliantly. Throughout all of his novels, even when his plotting is less than satisfactory, Parker's characterization, wit, and dialogue serve to captivate the reader to the end.
The popularity of this ex-cop, ex-soldier, ex-boxer, gourmet detective (who spouts literary allusions as often as he's called a wisecracking bum) earned Parker an Edgar award for best mystery novel of 1976. The book Promised Land was the fourth in the series. Whether Spenser is chasing after international terrorists in The Judas Goat (1978), protecting a lesbian writer in Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), or investigating drug smuggling in Pale Kings and Princes (1987) and Pastime (1991), he is building a code of behavior. This code will enable him to deal with a chaotic world. Ernest Hemingway laid out such a code in The Sun Also Rises; Parker is doing the same in his Spenser series. The measure of a man is in his response to situations.
Spenser usually must deal with a moral or ethical dilemma by the close of each novel. For example, Ceremony (1982) deals with the sexual exploitation of children. By the end of the novel Spenser must decide with whom April, a young prostitute, should live, uncaring parents or a high-class bordello. His choice would seem reprehensible by society's standards, but Spenser lives by a code which at times must supersede society's moral code.
In Promised Land, Parker introduces the character of Hawk, an enforcer for the mob. Newgate Callendar describes him as "a black angel of death who strikes terror into all who cross him." Hawk is the perfect foil for Spenser. Hawk serves to remind Spenser that he doesn't have that far to fall to become Hawk. The relationship between Spenser and Hawk also becomes an excellent source of witty banter.
Where Parker has differed from the hard-boiled tradition most is the extended family that Spenser clearly has throughout the series. Paul Giacomin, who first appeared in Early Autumn (1981), plays the role of Spenser's surrogate son again in The Widening Gyre (1983) and Pastime (1991). Hawk, his friend, and Susan, his lover, appear in almost every novel in the series. Spenser also has contact with Lieutenant Martin Quirk, Sergeant Frank Belson, and Lieutenant Healy over the course of the series. All of these characters form an extended family on which Spenser relies. This is a definite break from the tradition of the detective who returns after a case—alone, desperate to escape from the chaos of the world, and unwilling to connect with another human being—to his shabby apartment.
Although Parker has written a few books not connected with the character of Spenser, including a panned sequel to Chandler's The Big Sleep entitled Perchance to Dream (1991), these forays outside the Spenser series have not been as well received. In Spenser, Parker has created a character to not only continue the hard-boiled detective tradition, but to expand its boundaries. As Robin S. Winks puts it, "There are a dozen claimants to follow Hammett, Chandler, and Ross Macdonald; Parker alone has done it."