Only once was I able to interview Robert B. Parker, the Boston-area novelist best known for creating series private eye Spenser. That was during the summer of 1980 when I was still getting my feet wet as a journalist.
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A college buddy had introduced me to Parker’s early novels, beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), and I’d grown fond of their star, a very literate ex-heavyweight boxer, gourmet chef and sleuth-for-hire. So I contacted the author through his publisher, arranged a meeting and hopped a plane from my West Coast home.
My memory is that Parker picked me up in an SUV outside a small bookstore in Cambridge, and since it was such a hot day—104 degrees!—we chatted over frosty frappés at a joint (now long gone) called Tommy’s Lunch. We talked about Parker’s novels (the newest of which, then, was 1980’s Looking for Rachel Wallace), his debts to predecessors Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Spenser’s long-term prospects. The author was personable, quick-witted, well read—not unlike his protagonist. I probably could’ve kept up the conversation for hours on end, but with our drinks gone and the afternoon cooling, we finally parted ways.
For the next couple of years, Parker and I corresponded. But we lost touch as he gained acclaim. My sole lingering contact was through his Spenser novels, which as they increased in number, seemed to decrease in innovation.
Parker helped break the trail for a generation wishing to pen regional, modern detective stories with a classic kick. Yet after his first six or eight Spenser titles—including the Edgar Award-winning Promised Land (1976)—the books became more predictable. Yes, Parker could still spin a mean witticism, and his tales were often poignant and rewardingly nuanced in their exploration of human failings. However, following the 1985 publication of A Catskill Eagle—in which Spenser’s longtime love, Susan Silverman, left him briefly and the gumshoe, together with his leg-breaking sidekick, Hawk, had to rescue her from evident abductors—the series posed few other threats to the familiar lives of its principal players.
When Parker died in January 2010 at age 77, I realized it had been several years since I’d read a Spenser story. And even then, I shied from trying new ones. I was afraid of disappointment.
But I couldn’t resist picking up Sixkill, the lately released 39th Spenser book—and the last one Parker had a chance to finish.
This is a typical Spenser yarn, in many respects. The peeper is hired to look into the peculiar fate of Dawn Lopata, a young woman who’d gone to a hotel room with Jeremy “Jumbo” Nelson, an obese comic actor visiting Boston to shoot a movie—and wound up dead, strangled while her seducer was supposedly sampling the bathroom facilities. It doesn’t take long for the spoiled Jumbo to piss off Spenser, who’s trying to remain professional as he determines Jumbo’s guilt or innocence. That commitment doesn’t end simply because the capricious performer fires Spenser. Instead, this turn gives our hero a freer hand to probe Lopata’s murder. It also links the P.I. with another of Jumbo’s recent castoffs, bodyguard Zebulon “Z” Sixkill, a Native American former footballer who isn’t nearly so capable a bruiser as he appears. Resisting the urge simply to pump Z for information about his ex-employer, and developing a fast interest in the younger tough, Spenser opts to become Z’s trainer and mentor. With the menacing Hawk busy elsewhere, Z will also be the P.I.’s backup as he confronts money-laundering mobsters and assesses what culpability Lopata’s parents had in her demise.
Spenser’s interest in “improving” Z sounds an awful lot like his efforts, in 1981’s Early Autumn, to educate an unloved teenage boy in the manly arts. In fact, Sixkill touches a lot of bases familiar to readers of this series. Parker presumably didn’t intend to conclude Spenser’s career here, but Sixkill wouldn’t have made an uncomfortable end.
No chance of that though.
In April, it was announced that more Spenser adventures are coming, now to be composed by Ace Atkins, the Mississippi author of The Ranger (2011) and Infamous (2010). I asked Atkins recently whether this means changes to the series.
“The family and I never want the new books just to be imitations, but exciting new stories for Spenser...,” he said. “But at the same time, I want fans to know this is Bob’s Spenser and not my reimagining of the character. I love the novels. If anything, my version of Spenser may be a bit of a throwback to Bob’s first novels. For astute readers, they will notice some touches from the earlier Spenser. I also think my interpretation of Susan is more like when we first met Susan. She can be a hell of a lot of fun and edgy.”
Hmm. After my long association with Parker’s snoop, am I prepared for a new chapter in his life, in different hands? Or should I be satisfied with what I’ve read, and move on? That might demand some thought. Maybe over a chocolate frappé.