The Man Behind Spenser
Writer Robert Parker has much in common with his fictional sleuth
BOSTON — ROBERT PARKER bangs out mystery novels starring his famous detective, Spenser, at the rate of five pages a day. Since he quit his job in the early 1970s as a tenured English professor at Northeastern University in Boston, he has churned out 20 highly successful Spenser thrillers, with the latest, "Paper Doll," released just this month (see review, right).
Mr. Parker professes not to care what critics or literary scholars think of his efforts. He knows he will never be classed with "serious" novelists - he says the word in a mocking tone - because "it's unlikely that anybody who's published 20 or 30 books can be taken seriously by academics."
But he is willing to laugh at critics all the way to the bank. "I think I'm creating art," Parker says matter-of-factly, slumping down in a chair, his feet propped up, in a Monitor conference room. "I think I write very well. The fact that I do it efficiently shouldn't detract from the judgment that I'm good."
But although Parker says he is satisfied with the reputation he has gained as a top-rate mystery novelist, he has decided to conquer new worlds. Before he starts his 21st Spenser book, Parker aims to finish an ambitious novel tracing the lives of three generations of Irish-American cops in Boston.
His working title is, "All Our Yesterdays." When he mentions that, the former professor - who loves to reel off literary quotations as much as his fictional hero does - adds an aside: "It's from MacBeth. I know you knew that but I wanted to make sure you knew that I knew."
Normally, this workmanlike scribe - who compares his craft to carpentry - is contemptuous of writers who make a Broadway production of their creative process. But "All Our Yesterdays" has proved harder to knock out than a typical Spenser novel.
The words come more slowly, because he has moved away from his sure-fire mystery formula. He has had to pay closer attention than usual to what he's writing, he says, because he's juggling the stories of three generations.
Parker even had to visit Dublin to do research for the novel; normally research is superfluous, he explains, because he writes about Boston and other locales he knows well.
After struggling for several years on "All Our Yesterdays," Parker says, "I told my wife, Joan, that this is what I hear [about] other novelists going through."
Nevertheless, Parker says he is glad he has undertaken the task, not only because he hopes it will make him "rich" but also because it will "make me a better writer."
"If you hit .350, you want to hit .380," this baseball aficionado says. "Being a writer is like being an athlete. You ask yourself: Can I do that?"
For now, Parker has put aside "All Our Yesterdays" to concentrate on the task at hand: selling "Paper Doll." Wearing a dark track suit, tennis shoes, and no socks, he spoke with the Monitor just before embarking on a grueling cross-country tour of bookstores and chat shows.
Naturally, the talk turns to Parker's prize creation, Spenser, the private eye who beats up villains yet still manages to cook gourmet meals.
Parker, who wrote part of his dissertation on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, says the character began as "Son of Phil" - a carbon-copy of Chandler's famous private investigator, Philip Marlowe.
"If someone had said this character sounds like Chandler, I would have been flattered," Parker adds. "But as time went by, I went in a different direction, through no design of my own."
The direction that Spenser took bears a suspicious resemblance to Parker's own life.
Both are Korean War veterans, both have pets named Pearl the Wonder Dog, both are engaged in long-term romances (Spenser with girlfriend Susan Silverman, Parker with his wife, Joan), both enjoy cooking and exercising.
And both are experiencing the challenges of aging. Parker, who is 60, says he no longer runs much and doesn't lift heavy weights anymore. He also complains about a growing spare tire around the middle. While Spenser remains more active and never seems to gain weight, the fictional detective may run into chronological problems of his own.
Parker started off making Spenser the same age as he was. And unlike Chandler's novels, Parker's books have Spenser encountering contemporary problems - ranging from Vietnam War protests in his first book, "The Godwulf Manuscript," to AIDS in his latest.
As the decade progresses, Spenser may have to retire from the gumshoe game or experience a miraculous rejuvenation. Neither option appeals to Parker.
"I don't have any idea of how to deal with that," the author says. "You can't have a hero of action novels who's 65 or 70 years old. So I just don't mention his age."