BY JOHN DeMERS
When I finally made my way to the graceful Cambridge, Mass., home of Robert B. Parker – who long had served as my “favorite living author,” though there’s hardly a career in being that – I had no idea he’d be living no longer within four months.
Parker, who became a household word among many readers for his 37 novels featuring the Boston private detective known only as Spenser (yes, he’d always have to explain, spelled like the poet) died of a heart attack at his desk this week, while his wife Joan was out running an errand. Over the years, Parker had made it clear to interviewers – including to me that late summer afternoon, as we recorded radio about his most recent (and now last) Spenser novel, The Professional – that a huge part of his insight into the human condition came to him by way of Joan. Not to mention the intriguing, sexy, talky, mature relationship Spenser managed to enjoy book after book with a lovely Jewish therapist named Susan.
Set before me that afternoon, I now realize, was everything I needed to know about Spenser, or for that matter, about Parker’s other popular franchise characters like haunted smalltown police chief Jesse Stone (played often in TV movies by Tom Selleck) and Sunny Randall (created originally as a film vehicle for Helen Hunt). Before I left Parker that day, I’d even vowed to read his westerns, though I pretty much always hated westerns between book covers or on any size of screen. Okay, well, maybe How the West Was Won was pretty good, along with The Magnificent Seven. The fact that the latter had morphed its way into the West from a Japanese samurai movie became clearer to me than ever in Parker’s presence, as did the link between the West and Spenser’s dangerous walks on Boston’s wild side.
I’d read many of the 37 Spensers, plus I think all of the Stones and Randalls. But I’d never understood something until Parker told me directly: the reason he wanted me to read his westerns (beginning with Appaloosa, which became a film starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) is that his main man Spenser is actually a western hero in disguise. Some might say he’s a knight in shining armor – an image that is tossed around in the novels, invariably with Spenser’s dazzling self-sarcasm. But in truth, he’s a more muscular Gary Cooper in a tough town where every day features at least one High Noon.
You almost can’t understand Spenser in Boston without the tales of Parker’s two lonesome heroes wandering from town to town in the Old West, finding chaos and refusing to leave until order has been imposed. That, I now understand – too late to tell Parker the next time I see him – is exactly what Spenser does. All around him, there is corruption and cruelty, all around him there is deception and violence. And by passing through violence himself (he dishes it up to enemies without remorse, usually in tandem with his wisecracking, even larger African-American sidekick, Hawk) Spenser restores order, morality and the closest we’re likely to get to peace.
It is essential (as Old World as this made both Spenser and Parker seem at times) that all Parker heroes represent the Good, with a capital G. In their own lives, they might be a mess, a tangle of weaknesses and uncertainties. Beset by drink. Hopeless with the opposite sex. And usually pursued by the harsh reality of remembered failure. But when push came to shove (as it did so magnificently in any Parker novel), their elemental honesty, goodness and compassion for those who are weaker came shining through.
This isn’t the sort of story we read or see as much as we should anymore. With considerable justification, novelists younger than Parker’s 77 years show the world as they see it, full of compromise and amorality. In their novels, the bad guys often win, or slink off to be bad in some other way – and the good guys are so corrupted they have nothing good to stand on against the relentless onslaught of evil. You finish these novels with a strong whiff of perceived reality, but a deep disappointment as well.
What we want, no matter how realistic we are about our world, is someone strong enough to beat back the chaos, pure enough (for all his shortcomings) to impose morality, and, yes, large enough to protect all those who are small. What we want is a knight in shining armor. What we want is a Spenser. In some profound way, what we want is a Bob Parker who doesn’t die on the final page.