'Spenser' novelist Robert Parker dies at age 77

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2006 file photo, author Robert Parker poses in his office in Cambridge, Mass. The author of the popular Spenser private eye books about a hard-nosed Boston private investigator, died Monday, Jan. 18, 2010 in Cambridge. He was 77. FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2006 file photo, author Robert Parker poses in his office in Cambridge, Mass. The author of the popular Spenser private eye books about a hard-nosed Boston private investigator, died Monday, Jan. 18, 2010 in Cambridge. He was 77. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki, File)
By Mark Pratt
Associated Press Writer / January 19, 2010

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BOSTON—Robert B. Parker, the blunt and beloved crime novelist who helped revive and modernize the hard-boiled genre and branded a tough guy of his own through his "Spenser" series, has died. He was 77.

The cause of death was unclear. An ambulance was sent to Parker's home in Cambridge on Monday morning after reports of a sudden death, said Alexa Manocchio, spokeswoman for the Cambridge police department.

Parker's longtime agent, Helen Brann, said that the author's widow, Joan, called her Monday right after finding him dead at his desk.

"They had had breakfast together Monday, and he was perfectly fine," Brann said. "She went out to do her running and when she came back about an hour later, he was dead. We were in a complete state of shock and still cannot quite believe it."

Prolific to the end, Parker wrote more than 50 novels, including 37 featuring Boston private eye Spenser. The character's first name was a mystery, with his last name emphatically spelled with an "s" in the middle, not a "c."

"I first got into him when I was a student and me and my friends heard about this writer who had these really cool books about a detective in Boston. You really had to seek them out at first," said Dennis Lehane, author of "Mystic River" and other Boston-based novels.

"He taught me how to be funny on the page. He taught me how to be succinct. He taught me how to give voice to that wonderfully jaded Boston sarcasm that came out in his books. I remember telling Bob that the first chapter of my first book (`A Drink Before the War') was so faux Parker he should have been suing me."

The character was the basis for the 1980s TV series "Spenser: For Hire," starring Robert Urich. Parker later said the only thing he liked about the program was the residual checks.

Parker admired Raymond Chandler and other classic crime writers and helped bring back their cool, clipped style in the first "Spenser" novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript," from 1973. Within a few years, with "Looking for Rachel Wallace" and "Early Autumn," he was acclaimed as a master in his own right.

"Hard-boiled detective fiction was essentially dead in the early '70s. It was considered almost a museum thing," said Ace Atkins, author of "Devil's Garden," "Wicked City" and several other novels. "When Parker brought out Spenser, it reinvigorated the genre. ... I wouldn't have a job now without Robert Parker."

Robert Crais, known for his Elvis Cole/Joe Pike novels, said Parker "opened the doors for everyone who came after."

"For a long time, the American detective genre was defined by the big three: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. I would say Robert Parker is the fourth," Crais said.

Parker also was known for his Sunny Randall and Jesse Stone series. His other books included a novel inspired by the life of Jackie Robinson, "Double Play"; the Westerns "Appaloosa," "Resolution" and "Brimstone"; and "Perchance to Dream," a sequel to Chandler's "The Big Sleep."

Parker won two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and a Grand Master Edgar in 2002 for lifetime achievement. A new Jesse Stone novel, "Split Image," is scheduled to come out next month, and several other books, including some Spenser novels, are "in the pipeline," according to Chris Pepe, his editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons, an imprint of Penguin Group.

More than 4 million copies of Parker's books have sold worldwide, Brann, his agent, said.

In a 1996 interview with The Associated Press, Parker noted several similarities between himself and Spenser. They both appreciated good food; Spenser dined at some of Parker's favorite restaurants. Both liked baseball and jazz. Both were veterans of the Korean War. Both could throw a punch -- or least had the desire.

"He does a great many things I don't believe," Parker said. "I don't know if he's more violent that I am. But he's more willing to enact it than I am. Let's just say we're not dissimilar."

Parker said he liked to write 10 pages a day, finish a book without revision and then turn over the manuscript to his wife. He only learned how the story would turn out by writing it, making the novel a kind of parallel adventure for author and character.

A native of Springfield, Mass., Parker studied as an undergraduate at Colby College and received a Ph.D. in English from Boston University, where his dissertation was on Hammett and Chandler, whom he made no secret of imitating. He was teaching at Northeastern University when he created Spenser, observing later that he was inspired in part because Chandler was dead and he missed his famous detective, Philip Marlowe.

Admirers credit Parker with not only honoring the hard-boiled style, but also with updating it. Unlike Marlowe and other classic characters, Spenser was not a confirmed loner, but in a solid relationship. Parker's stories also included blacks, Latinos and gays.

"He opened the door to women as readers of hard-boiled detective fiction," Crais said. "He set the stage and made a ready-made audience for authors like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky."

Brann said that a private ceremony will take place this week, and that a public memorial is planned for mid-February in Boston.


AP National Writer Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this report.