By Robert B. Parker
Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series comprises over thirty hard-boiled detective novels published between 1973 and 2010 that feature the eponymous hero, a cultured, physically formidable, Boston-based private investigator, whose first name is never revealed. The first book in the series, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), introduces the erudite and gruff private eye as he investigates the case of a medieval book that has been stolen from a local university and is being held for ransom. Throughout the series, Spenser’s main confidants are his longtime love interest, psychologist Susan Silverman, and Hawk, a street-smart thug whose connections to the criminal world prove to be both helpful and dangerous. Promised Land, the fourth Spenser novel, won the Edgar Award for best novel from the Mystery Writers of America in 1976; in 2002 the organization gave Parker the Grand Master Award for his achievement in the genre. The Spenser novels were adapted for the television series Spenser: For Hire, which starred Robert Urich and ran from 1985 to 1988. Parker continued writing the successful series until his death in 2010.
Literary and Historical Context
As hard-boiled detective novels, the Spenser books adhere to the conventions of the genre. People are frequently not who they seem to be, and Spenser’s investigations take him deep into a shadowy underworld fueled by lies, intrigue, and violence. The main difference between Spenser and his solitary, Spartan predecessors such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade is the time in which he lives. The stylized, noir world of the 1940s and 1950s is a relic untouched by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the sexual revolution—all of which had changed American culture significantly by the time Spenser appeared in 1973. Spenser is an enlightened product of his generation; though in the same line of work as Marlowe and Spade, he is not the sullen misanthrope of years gone by. Instead, he calls for help when needed—something most hard-boiled detectives would be loathe to do. Spenser’s help is the intimidating Hawk, a no-nonsense African American hit man with unparalleled street smarts. Racial fraternization of this sort would have been highly unusual in the segregated world of the golden age detective novel.
The women’s movement, which lobbied for greater equality between men and women, had gained steam by the early 1970s, and its success is reflected in Spenser’s enlightened attitudes about females. In the novels of Hammett and Chandler, women, when they are not merely superfluous, are usually temptresses adept in the practices of two-timing and backstabbing. The hard-boiled detective might be attracted to a woman, but he would never trust her. Spenser breaks this tradition by cultivating a long-term romance and friendship with his intellectual equal, Susan Silverman. As solitary as Spenser is, his ability to form meaningful personal relationships can be seen as the result of a social transition that put men and women on equal footing. Spenser, instead of seeing Susan as a “dame” or an impediment to his bachelor lifestyle, sees her as an asset, an intellectual and sexual companion who makes his life worth living. That said, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s has eroded the institution of marriage; Spenser and Susan never marry or even live together, and Susan steadfastly maintains her independence, going so far as to move across the country for the sake of her career. Thus, Parker’s modern take on the hard-boiled novel applies primarily to plot and not characterization.
Spenser’s moral code forms the thematic foundation of the series. As a detective involved with murderers and
thugs whose job requires that he sometimes kill people, he has somehow managed to attain a sense of normalcy in his life by adhering to his moral compass. “Spenser inherits Marlowe’s toughness and his sense of himself as living outside the law,” wrote Christina Root in Clues, “both detectives inhabit bleak social landscapes and cynically question the social structures that encourage hypocrisy and deception. Parker is most interested in continuing the tradition of the hard-boiled detective’s living by a private moral code.” According to critic Rita Elizabeth Rippetoe, “Spenser’s code requires that he strive to protect the weak and to refrain from killing unless it is necessary for self-defense or to defend others.” “Parker once defined Spenser’s code as ‘a commitment to honorable behavior,’” wrote Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times Book Review, “in which ‘one’s goodness is tested in physical success and some kind of violent circumstance.’” The moral code is founded on what is right versus what is law, but it is not as black and white as it could be. “Spenser is mired in a post-Watergate, post-Nixon, post-Vietnam United States where accepted ideals of moral persuasion and right behavior are not as clear cut as in Hammett’s, Chandler’s and even [Ross] Macdonald’s day,” wrote Donald J. Grenier. “The result is the victorious detective as self-doubter, the winner who is no longer sure if he has played by the rule.”
The evolution of Spenser’s moral code is depicted in Chasing the Bear (2009), a young adult novel about the detective’s teenage years. The future detective’s morality is shaped by his alcoholic father and his experience with racial injustice, both of which influence his “notion of manliness,” wrote Ian Chipman in Booklist. Years later Spenser helps the teenage delinquent Paul Giacomin straighten out his life over the course of several novels even though he has no official stake in the boy’s life. In Looking for Rachel Wallace (1987), Spenser embarks on what amounts to a “chivalric quest to restore a more essential American morality,” wrote Frederic Svoboda, though it requires putting his life on the line for a radical lesbian feminist who abhors nearly everything Spenser stands for. As he ages, however, Spenser’s moral code occupies less mental territory, according to Stasio, who wrote that in Cold Service (2005) “he still wrestles with his conscience, [but] he’s more driven by his fear of mortality than by the old issues of morality.”
The language of the hard-boiled detective novel is characterized by terse dialogue and colorful but not verbose prose, and the Spenser series is no exception. “Parker tells his story with fine touches of cynical mood and wryly observed sketches of Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles,” wrote Richard Gid Powers in a review of Stardust (1990), concluding that “characters are lined out in brilliant shorthand.” Marilyn Stasio of the New York Times Book Review appreciated the novel Cold Service, which featured “dialogue [that] is precisionpolished like a fine tool,” and Bruce Weber, writing in the New York Times, characterized Parker’s language as a “blunt, masculine prose style that is often described as Hemingwayesque.” Jurek Martin of the Financial Times also noted how Parker’s “prose could be muscular and sparse in the manner of Hemingway, and [how] the dialogue, at its best, positively crackles.” A Publishers Weekly reviewer remarked that “Parker makes producing snappy banter look easy.” Also like many detective novels, the Spenser series was written in first person; his viewpoint is always that of the reader, who comes to identify with him as they see the world through his eyes.
The Spenser series is hailed for its “easy-going prose, tight plot-lines and vivid characters,” wrote Justin Warshaw in the Times Literary Supplement, and for its eponymous Page 1101 | Top of Articlehero, “a straightforward good guy, the cowboy in the white hat.” Spenser’s penchant for his particular brand of domestic bliss earned him the sobriquet of detective fiction’s first “feminist tough guy” from Frederic Svoboda, and Christina Root called him “one of the most politically enlightened and sensitive of contemporary private eyes,” even as he is the “spiritual descendant of the hard-boiled detective exemplified in Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer as well as Chandler’s Philip Marlowe.” Donald J. Grenier appreciated Spenser as an “example of the educated man confronting the dregs of his society as American culture continues to decline.” Critics applauded the character of Hawk almost as much. Alexander Harrison, reviewing Small Vices (1997) in the Times Literary Supplement, summarized the enigmatic Hawk as “a man so frightening that even the dogs change their paths rather than sniff round him.”
As the series became established, “Parker … exhibited growing independence from his predecessors,” wrote David Geherin in Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the 70s, “confidently developing his own themes, character, and stylistic idiom.” Yet some critics felt several novels of the 1980s were not up to par with earlier tales. R. W. B. Lewis, writing in the New York Times, said that with the publication of the first ten novels, “it was clear that we were witnessing one of the great series in the history of the American detective story,” but that A Catskill Eagle (1985) and Crimson Joy (1988) did not live up to those early standards. By the 1990s, though, most reviewers felt he was back on track. Stasio called Small Vices (1997) “apowerful piece about the defeat and reclamation of a hero,” and Connie Fletcher, reviewing The Professional (2009) in Booklist just months before the author’s death, echoed legions of critics in praising its “great plotting, clever dialogue, and Spenser’s mouthwatering cooking [which] all make for a fantastic time.”
Chipman, Ian. Rev. of Chasing the Bear, by Robert B. Parker. Booklist 105.17 (1 May 2009): 38. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Fletcher, Connie. Rev. of The Professional, by Robert B. Parker. Booklist 105.22 (1 Aug. 2009): 9. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Geherin, David. Sons of Sam Spade: The Private Eye Novel in the 70s. New York: Ungar, 1980. 5-82. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Grenier, Donald J. “Robert B. Parker and the Jock of the Mean Streets.” Critique 26.1 (1984): 36-44. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Harrison, Alexander. Rev. of Small Vices, by Robert B. Parker. Times Literary Supplement 4983 (2 Oct. 1998): 24. Rpt. in Contemporary Literature Criticism. Vol. 283. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Martin, Jurek. “Writer Who Cases a Generous Eye over the Mean Streets.” Financial Times 6 Feb. 2010: 8. General OneFile. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Lewis, R. W. B. Rev. of Playmates, by Robert B. Parker. New York Times Book Review, nytimes.com 23 Apr. 1989. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Powers, Richard Gid. “Hard-Boiled in Hollywood.” New York Times 8 July 1990. Print.
Rev. of The Professional, by Robert B. Parker. Publishers Weekly 256.33 (17 Aug. 2009): 39. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Rippetoe, Rita Elizabeth. “Robert B. Parker: ‘This Was No Job for a Poet,’” in her Booze and the Private Eye: Alcohol in the Hard-Boiled Novel, 106-29. Jefferson: McFarland, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Root, Christina. “Silence of the Other: Women in Robert Parker’s Spenser Series.” Clues 19.1 (1998): 25-38. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Stasio, Marilyn. “The Aging Action Hero.” New York Times Book Review, nytimes.com 13 Mar. 2005. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
———. Rev. of Small Vices, by Robert B. Parker. New York Times Book Review, nytimes.com 13 Apr. 1997. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Svoboda, Frederic. “Hard-Boiled Feminist Detectives and Their Families: Reimagining a Form.” In Gender in Popular Culture: Images of Men and Women in Literature, Visual Media, and Material Culture. Cleveland, OK: Ridgemont Press, 1995: 247-72. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Warshaw, Justin. “White Hat Will Travel.” Times Literary Supplement 5513 (28 Nov. 2008): 21. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Weber, Bruce. “Robert B. Parker, the Prolific Writer Who Created Spenser, Is Dead at 77.” New York Times, nytimes.com 20 Jan. 2010: A14. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Criticism and Reviews
Fackler, Herbert V. “Spenser’s New England Conscience.” Colby Quarterly 34.3 (Sept. 1998): 253-60. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010. The critic theorizes that Spenser’s code of honor was inspired by the philosophies of New England luminaries Cotton Mather and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Gelfant, Blanche H. “Spenser’s Lexicon.” Prospects 24 (1999): 1. General OneFile. Web. 9 Sept. 2010. Academic essay in which Spenser’s rhetoric is analyzed and found to correspond with republican values that the author both extols and subverts.
James, Dean, and Elizabeth Foxwell. The Robert B. Parker Companion. New York: Berkley Trade, 2005. Print. Volume contains a comprehensive list of characters, a short biography, and an interview with Parker.
Taylor, Rhonda Harris. “‘It’s about Who Controls the Information’: Mystery Antagonists and Information Literacy.” Clues 24.1 (2005): 7-17. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010. Taylor analyzes information technology in three detective novels, including Parker’s Widow’s Walk, to show how the villains take advantage of it.
“Robert B. Parker.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
“Robert B. Parker.” Contemporary Literary Criticism— Select. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
“Robert B. Parker.” Dictionary of Literary Biography Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sept. 2010.
Open Web Sources
The official Robert B. Parker website includes information about all the author’s books, an audio author interview, and links to other Parker sites. http://robertbparker.net
For Further Reading
Chandler, Raymond, and Robert B. Parker. Perchance to Dream: Robert B. Parker’s Sequel to Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.” New York: Putnam, 1991. Print. The Big Sleep is one of the best-loved hard-boiled detective novels; Parker completed the sequel (which was unfinished at the time of Chandler’s death), which concerns Philip Marlowe’s investigation of a psychotic woman who is missing from a sanatorium.
———. Poodle Springs. New York: Putnam, 1989. Print. Parker completed this Chandler manuscript, in which Philip Marlowe, married to a wealthy woman, finds murder, bigamy, and blackmail in the upscale Poodle Springs community.
Parker, Robert B. Family Honor. New York: Berkley, 2000. Print. The first Sunny Randall novel introduces readers to the capable female private eye Sunny, who tackles a case of a runaway rich girl in Boston.
———. Night Passage. New York: Putnam, 1994. Print. This is Parker’s first Jesse Stone novel, featuring an ex-Los Angeles cop with a drinking problem and a broken marriage who has just become the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts.
Parker, Robert B., and Jil Foutch. Boston: History in the Making. Memphis: Towery, 1999. Print. This photographic tour of Boston is narrated by Spenser and Hawk as they pursue their latest suspect through the bars and parks of the city they know so intimately.
A Man Called Hawk. Perf. Avery Brooks. ABC, 1989. Television series. This 13-episode spin-off of Spenser: For Hire ran for one season and took place in Washington, D.C. The cast included many notable actors, including Angela Bassett, Wesley Snipes, and Chris Noth.
Robert B. Parker’s Thin Air. Dir. Robert Mandel. Perf. Joe Mantegna, Marcia Gay Harden. A&E Television, 2000. Television movie. Parker wrote the teleplay based on his 1995 novel, in which Frank Belson’s new wife mysteriously disappears. Spenser, played by Mantegna, searches for her amid a shadowy Latino underworld.
Robert B. Parker’s Walking Shadow. Dir. Po-Chic Leong. Perf. Joe Mantegna, Marcia Gay Harden, Ernie Hudson. A&E Television, 2001. Television movie. Spenser investigates the stalking of a theater director in Port City and finds himself pursued by Chinese mobsters.
Spenser: A Savage Place. Dir. Joseph L. Scanlan. Perf. Robert Urich, Avery Brooks. Boardwalk Entertainment, 1995. Television movie. One of Spenser’s old flames hires him to investigate a credit card fraud ring associated with a bankrupt movie company.
Spenser: Ceremony. Dir. Paul Lynch, Andrew Wild. Perf. Robert Urich. Boardwalk Entertainment, 1993. Television movie. This first of four television adaptations was broadcast on Lifetime and written by Parker and his wife Joan. Spenser hunts for the runaway daughter of a millionaire candidate for governor.
Spenser: For Hire. Perf. Robert Urich, Avery Brooks. ABC, 1985–1988. Television series. This show ran for three seasons and included sixty-six episodes; the first episode was an adaptation of Promised Land. Parker himself wrote several episodes.
Spenser: Pale Kings and Princes. Dir. Vic Sarin. Perf. Robert Urich, Avery Brooks. Boardwalk Entertainment, 1994. Television movie. Also written by Parker and his wife, the story revolves around the murder of one of Susan’s former patients, which leads Spenser and Hawk into a confrontation with the head of a cocaine smuggling ring.
Spenser: Small Vices. Dir. Robert Markowitz. Perf. Joe Mantegna, Marcia Gay Harden. A&E Television, 1999. Television movie. This TV movie stars Mantegna as Spenser, who is hired to investigate the death of a college student and finds himself pursued by a hit man named Rugar.
Spenser: The Judas Goat. Dir. Joseph L. Scanlan. Perf. Robert Urich, Avery Brooks. Boardwalk Entertainment, 1994. Television movie. Based on the 1978 novel, this TV movie included Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman. A man hires Spenser to find who murdered his wife and daughters; he and Hawk become embroiled in a plot to assassinate an African leader.