All too often we are reminded of the old adage “all good things must come to an end”¬. The downside of mortal longevity is an increasing awareness that bits and pieces of our personal world - the very stuff we feed upon for our own sense of continuity - are being eroded by the passage of time. I thought about this recently when I learned of the death of an old friend I never met in person.
I read my first Robert B. Parker mystery novel back in 1973, with publication of “The Godwulf Manuscript”, in which a wise-cracking, straight-talking, elegantly-sarcastic, Boston tough-guy named Spenser (no first name) strode onto the literary scene. Now, thirty-nine Spenser novels later, the series I hoped would never end has ended with the death in Boston of Robert B. Parker at the age of 77. Those who are non-readers may recall the popular television series of the ‘80s known as “Spenser For Hire”, a take-off on the inimitable character invented and fine-tuned by Parker.
Parker was at his best in the characterization of the cast of always-compelling personalities who populated the pages of his prolific output. Beside the deadpan but deftly-sardonic Spencer, one could always anticipate some gently-needling ebonic input from his tall, powerful, and streetwise black friend “Hawk”, whose dark side never endangered his absolute sense of loyalty. Spenser’s one true love, Susan, was always close by and yet ever-independent; his “on-site psycho-therapist” and paramour.
There was another – always faithful – presence in Spenser’s small circle of confidants, and her name was “Pearl”. Whether occupying her spot at one end of the couch at Spenser’s apartment or the lone soft chair in his Boston office, the German Short Hair pointer was ever ready to display her approval or disapproval of almost everything her “alpha leader” did or said. Unless she was away for an “over-nighter” at Susan’s place.
Along with Spenser, another of my favorite – and more recent - Parker characters would have to be Jesse Stone, a “washed-out” former Los Angeles detective trying to escape from his alcoholism by taking a job as Police Chief of a small seaside Massachusetts town. Five of the six Jesse Stone novels have found their way into made-for-TV movies starring Tom Selleck, in one of those unusual collaborations where the inspired casting, moody cinematography and haunting background music produce a movie rivaling the book which spawned it. Once again, a silent, but most expressive dog, whose eyes fill with an evocative disappointment every time his master clinks a bottle to a glass, is cast in a supporting role.
Proving that he is a master of more than one genre, Parker has also written four westerns, built around two nomadic not-quite-lawmen known as Everett Hitch and his shotgun-wielding side kick Virgil Cole. Appaloosa introduced the series in 2005, followed by Resolution, and Brimstone, with a 2010 release, Blue-Eyed Devil.
In 1999 actress Helen Hunt asked Parker to write a story introducing a female private eye with the expectation that she would play the role in a motion picture. Nothing ever came of the movie, but Parker’s publisher liked it, and the popular Sunny Randall series was born. Between 2000 and 2007, Robert Parker’s loyal followers were treated to seven of these “unexpected” mystery gems.
Bob Parker’s eclectic talent embraced a number of fields, yielding in all, more than 60 books – both fiction and non-fiction - over the years, including several co-written with his film-maker wife Joan. In 1989’s Poodle Springs, he completed a manuscript begun by the late Raymond Chandler, and his Perchance to Dream (1991) was a sequel to Chandler’s Big Sleep.
Perhaps more than any other fiction writer of his time, Mr. Parker has been an inspiration to a large handful of successful mystery authors whose books grace the shelves of book stores and libraries today. . . and tomorrow. He religiously wrote ten pages a day, six days a week, without self editing or re-reading, sometimes – he said – not knowing who was guilty until the final chapter. His wife would read it over to make sure he hadn’t “embarrassed himself”, and then he would “send it off, and start the next book.” Honored by his peers over and over again, his books have sold 4.5 million copies world-wide.
Robert Brown Parker died at his writing desk, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts January 18, 2010 at the age of 77. He and his wife Joan had known each other since childhood, and been married for 53 years. They have two sons.
And, oh yes. . . over their years together they have enjoyed the companionship of a succession of German Short Hair Pointers. And every one has been named Pearl.
Al Cooper can be heard each Monday at 4:00 PM on Cedar City’s KSUB, 590 AM