Book People | January 2010 | Nicholas Basbanes

Robert B. Parker

The Dean of American Crime writers, the prolific Massachusetts novelist Robert B. Parker, died unexpectedly at his home in Cambridge today, reportedly at his desk, presumably working on another Spenser novel; he was 77, and one of the really great ones.

Bob Parker was about as squared-away an author as I have ever had the privilege to interview. I will have to check my files, but I am guessing we got together no fewer that eight times over a twenty year period to talk about his latest release, which more often than not was a Spenser novel, but on one occasion, I remember, we met to discuss the Jesse Stone series he had just introduced, another time to talk about his female detective, Sunny Randall, and yet another get-together to talk about Poodle Spring, an unfinished Raymond Chandler novel he had completed.
It was always a joy to meet with him; the craft of authorship was always at the top of the agenda, needless to say--I was writing about him for my newspaper column, after all--but he always wanted to know what I was doing, and when I told him in 1990 that I had a contract to write a book, he was most supportive. When A Gentle Madness was published in 1995, he sent me a note, telling me "your book is all over Harvard Square. Well done." When we got together to schmooze again, his short-haired pointer Pearl (the same Pearl he wrote about in his novels) was snoozing contentedly on the sofa nearby, and Bob had a copy of my book sitting there on his desk. "This time you do the honors," he said, and handed me a pen to write an inscription. Frankly, I was flabbergasted.

I always was amazed at how effortlessly Bob seemed to write his books. Before he finally got himself a word processor back in the mid-90s, he wrote exclusively on an old manual typewriter that he attacked with two fingers. "One pass through the roller," he had told me, "and that's it, finished."  When he first created Spenser back in the early 1970s, the character was a Korean War veteran and former heavyweight boxer who had once fought Jersey Joe Walcott, the salient point being that if the calendar is even remotely correct, he would be well into his 70s for his most recent adventures. That little detail didn't bother Bob Parker at all. "Spenser ages according to my clock," he told me back then, right around the time his nimble private eye should have been applying for Social Security.

There were a lot of things I liked about Spenser--his appreciation for fine food, his agony for the Red Sox, his love of boxing, his passion for the city of Boston, but also his quick wit, his devotion to the love of his life, the Harvard shrink Susan Silverman, his lasting friendship with the ferocious sidekick Hawk--but most of all I liked his moral compass, which was honest, true, no-nonsense, compassionate--altogether an accurate reflection of his talented creator.

I will miss Spenser dearly, this I know.

But I already miss Bob Parker.