As a kid I started reading detective fiction from the ground up, starting with Conan Doyle and quickly segueing to Chandler and Hammett. (Ah, Hammett’s Continental Op.) As such, I’ve always had a taste for classic private eye stuff, and the number one practioner of such over the last thirty years or so was Robert B. Parker, creator of PI Spenser. Parker’s main contribution to the genre was Hawk, Spenser’s even deadlier occasional sidekick. It’s now pretty standard for PI’s to have such an associate, like Joe Pike in the Elvis Cole books.
Parker’s books basically became comfort food over the years, as he steadily churned out three to four books annually. This is because his books were basically all dialogue, and composed in short, punchy chapters. Parker was the only writer whose books I would generally read in one night, again because basically they were 90% wisecracking conversations, surrounded by tons of white space.
Lately Parker alternated between three characters, who all existed in a shared universe. Spenser had been around since the early ’70s, starting with The Godwulf Manuscript. He was more of a generic private eye at first, but quickly evolved into the familiar Spenser with the addition of two characters; Hawk, and Susan, Spenser’s True Love.
Eventually the books became basically running (and, admittedly, kind of repetitive, if still fun) dialogues about The Code, or at least that was what I called it. It was The Code that defined Spenser and Hawk and in some ways Susan and pretty much everyone else that had any honor in the Spenser universe. It was generally people lacking in The Code who Spenser had to help.
Eventually Parker started writing as well about small town police chief Jesse Stone (currently played by Tom Selleck in an ongoing series of TV movies for CBS). He also created a distaff Spenser in female PI Sonny Randall, supposedly a character created with the idea that Helen Hunt would play her in some movies. That never happened, and sans such obvious publicity, Randall eventually got folded into the more successful Stone books.
The Code was a major component in all these books, which was also the subject of a series of Westerns, one of which, Appaloosa, was made into a movie by Ed Harris. Aside from The Code, the other major theme in Parker’s work was the fact that his heroes (and heroines) had a True Love.
These were never abandoned even when the relationships with them were destructive, although interestingly Parker seemed to be actually shaking things up a bit–which he didn’t really do often, it must be said–by having Stone and Randall establishing a romance despite each of them having a semi-destructive True Love figure in their lives. Hopefully the next Stone book, due out soon, will advance this situation.
I’m sure my lame descriptions of Parker’s books are doing him a disservice. Parker may have eased into a comfortable rut some time ago, but his books remained extremely fun to read–although the last decade’s worth of Spenser books saw way too much of Susan and their dogs in lieu of the far more entertaining Hawk–particularly since again they required so little effort to blow through.
Still, few folks ever wrote laconic and sarcastic banter like Parker did. In the end, Parker was arguably the last giant of the private investigator novel, the last writer to really change, even in minor ways, the overall genre.
When a writer dies, he takes an entire universe, sometimes several, with him. I’ll miss visiting this one.