Robert B. Parker died this past January. Painted Ladies, his latest Spenser novel was released this past Tuesday. And, according to Amazon’s web page, another Spenser will be released in early 2011.
Parker’s influence on writers—in and out of the mystery genre—is widespread. Harlan Coben told The Atlantic in 2007 that "When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he's an influence, and the rest of us lie about it."
“There’s private-eye fiction before Bob, and there’s private-eye fiction after him.” Dennis Lehane said in The Boston Globe. “The debt’s huge and I was always upfront about that. My first book is so much Robert Parker in the first chapter that I’m surprised he didn’t sue me.’’
But even writers that aren’t fans of detective novels would do well to be influenced by Parker’s discipline and work ethic.
He was at his desk every day. In fact, he died at his desk – perhaps, every writer’s dream? Parker’s agent Helen Braun told bookreporter.com: "Bob wrote five pages a day every day but Sunday … every day of his adult life. He was very clear about it. No more and no less than five pages.”
Only a writer would realize how tough that is to do.
Parker was, of course, an unabashed admirer of Raymond Chandler. But while Chandler’s influence was significant, Parker also had his own unique voice and characterizations.
Contrast the way each writer wrote about female characters. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe once described a woman as “a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” (Farewell, My Lovely)
But Spenser continued to be enraptured by his longtime love, Susan Silverman: “I looked at her. I felt the same feeling I always felt when I looked at her. It was almost a way to monitor my existence. Like a pulse. If I looked at her and didn’t feel the feeling, I’d know that I’d died.” (Double Deuce)
Some readers haven’t always liked Spenser’s sustained love for Susan; not hard-boiled enough, perhaps. But to me, this is where Parker skillfully modified the old school detective’s attitude towards females.
Without Susan and the unique relationships she had with Spenser, the detective would have been a latter-day, East Coast imitation of Philip Marlowe, and nothing more. That would have made Spenser just one of many Marlowe knockoffs. I think Parker was too good a writer and too savvy a creator of characters to settle for that.
I live in Boston and over the years would see Parker occasionally, perhaps at Fenway Park or sometimes at a book signing. When buying Painted Ladies the other day, it seemed strange and a bit sad to think Parker would not be making a signing appearance or two. Or that one wouldn’t see Parker and his wife, Joan, in a Boston restaurant similar to one in which Spenser would meet Susan—The Harvest (OK, that one’s in Cambridge), the Bristol Lounge or a Legal Seafood.
But someday I know I’ll find myself at the intersection of Boylston and Berkeley Streets, in Boston’s Back Bay, where Spenser’s office was. And I’ll still probably look up to the second floor and imagine what might be happening. Perhaps Hawk would have just walked in with fresh donuts, about to make plans to accompany Spenser on a late-night meeting.
And I’ll also do my level best to aim for that “five pages a day” discipline Parker had.