By Kevin Coupe
Note: this story originally appeared in the Connecticut Post in the summer of 1985. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Robert Parker writes love stories.
They cannot be found in the "love stories" section of the local bookstore, of course. Parker's series of novels, featuring a Boston-based private detective called Spenser, generally can be found in the "mystery fiction" section, amid the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald, writers who generously seeded the ground that Parker works today.
But Parker's are love stories nevertheless. "Most of my books are about love, in part," he says over a beer in the cafe of The Ritz-Carlton, the posh Boston hotel overlooking the Public Garden. "And in some way or another, about the question of how a person should act." Parker, who sprinkles his conversation with allusions to Shakespeare, Frost and Melville, among others, here refers to Freud's observation that the most important things in a man's life are love and work. "The books are about that, too. Those are the things that interest me - (love) between men and women, adults and children, fathers and sons. Fathers and sons because I am a father and I have two sons, and I modify that and strain it through. Husband and wife because that is what my real interest is, and I strain that through. Those things interest me the most.
"I change, I hope, as I get older," Parker says. "But those things are in many ways consistent in the books. Not so rigidly as Ross Macdonald's commitment to the dark sin hidden in the deep past, but most of my books, directly or indirectly, are about some of those things. Family, childhood, love." Parker smiles. He takes another sip of beer. "Very few of my books are about who stole the Maltese Falcon."
The occasion for Parker's reflections is a sudden emergence of his finely crafted works on a number of fronts. The twelfth book featuring Spenser, "A Catskill Eagle," has been on national best-seller lists almost since the week it was published. The eleven preceding Spenser novels - plus the two outside the series, "Love and Glory" and "Wilderness" - have been reissued by Dell in paperback to significant success. "Spenser For Hire," a moderately faithful rendition of the characters in a television series format, premieres with Robert Urich in the title role on September 20.
But Parker, 52, a burly, strong-looking man several inches under six-feet tall, with mirthful eyes and a throaty, infectious chuckle, seems comfortable with his growing fame. Perhaps it is because he does not take it too seriously, which becomes evident when he discusses his own family life. (Sometimes, when Parker speaks, it is for Spenser, and sometimes for himself. While it is obvious that the two share much, Spenser is not Parker. "He's taller," jokes the author, who is a good deal less intense than his creation.)
Writing novels was never a burning passion, he says, despite a career that veered from advertising to academia. "I had achieved the most important things in my life when I married Joan and had the sons (David and Daniel). Given the choice between Joan and the boys, and being a writer, I world give up being a writer without a blink. I have a burning passion for only those three things, plus Pearl, of course." He laughs, then confides that Pearl is his dog.
"But I did always want to (write books), and I profoundly disliked all the other stuff I was doing. So Joan suggested that I ought to get to be a professor, and that then I would have time to write. I said that I'd need a Ph.D., and she said, 'Why don't you get one?' I said that I was 30 years old and had a wife and two kids, and she said, 'Well, aside from that?' So we did, and we scrambled for a couple of years and finally I got the Ph.D. and became a professor and wrote the books. I refer to myself now as a reformed academic...But it (writing) was never a burning passion. It looks that way because you look at my history and see that I finally wrote a novel when I was 40, but I could have died happy with Joan and the boys and if I had never published a book."
Most of Parker's books are dedicated to his wife; one that was not has the following inscription: "For David Parker and Daniel Parker, with the respect and admiration of their father, who grew up with them." This openness of affection can be seen throughout his books, whether it be Spenser's helping a baseball player and his ex-prostitute wife escape the clutches of a blackmailer, aiding a shiftless and hangdog young boy and encouraging him to develop personal standards of conduct, or giving the woman he passionately loves, Susan Silverman, the physical and spiritual freedom to make the most crucial of choices. Spenser is not a man of law, but one of justice. Of ethics and integrity. And, most of all, of love. Of course, the character did not start out that way. In the first book, "The Godwulf Manuscript," Spenser is a typical fictional private eye, all wisecracks and libido. By the time he reaches "A Catskill Eagle," he has gained a surrogate family, he has learned much more about himself and his view of the world, he increasingly has become convinced that his outlook on life has been too severe.
"I think he is a lot less rigid," Parker says. "He has come to understand much more how complicated the world is, that integrity is a goal to be sought, but he is realizing, as he gets older, how complicated it is to achieve it. The associations with other characters, the surrogate family that has become a regular part of the series, were natural rather than planned progressions, he says, and perhaps reflect his own change in circumstances. When he first started to write about Spenser, Parker says, he was much more defiant; with success has come an ability to reflect and to accept more readily. "I think there may be a great parallel," he says.
Less defiant though he may be, Parker says that "A Catskill Eagle" represents a conscious attempt to push the boundaries of the detective novel. ("I don't write in the genre, people read in the genre," he says.)
By no means a whodunit, "A Catskill Eagle" is about Spenser's search for Susan Silverman, who had become a damsel in distress. In the course of his search, Spenser commits murder, mayhem and violates any number of laws. He spends little time contemplating the morality of his acts; the ends, at least in this case, seem to justify the means. It is left to the reader to judge Spenser's actions and their consequences.
The book has drawn its share of attention - Parker acknowledges that some feel it is his best book, while others say it is his worst. Publishers weekly described Spenser as "degenerating into an amoral. mass murderer," but Newsweek called the book Parker's finest novel, noting that "he seeks to recreate, in contemporary context, the medieval quest."
"I don't want to write the same book over and over," says Parker. "I want to do what I can do, I want to try things. It's like a high jumper: 'I wonder if I can do seven two.'"
Parker says he wanted to shift the conventional view of heroism. "The convention of the novel-reading world is that the hero does what is right. And it isn't all the time. (Spenser) is someone who wouldn't be in his line of work if he didn't like to hit. There is something about violence that charms and appeals to him. And it is difficult for him to justify that. We're talking ambivalence and ambiguity here. The degree to which he uses violence is never random. It is always for reasons - whether one likes the reasons or not or whether they are even right or not. They are, in some sense, civilized."
Parker adds, "You cannot say that the ends justify the means, or vice-versa. It is irrelevant to the way people really life. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't, and sometimes they do to someone and not to someone else. There is a priority in Spenser's order of things, and it is always one-on-one. he does not theorize.
"He may expound philosophically on things now and then, but he always chooses - and I would always choose - the individual rather than the group. I would not sacrifice you for the greater good. I think it was E.M. Foster who once said that if he had the choice between betraying his friend and betraying his country, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. I'll buy that. Someone else, I think it was Pound, said that if there were a fire in a museum filled with great works of art and there also was a cat in there, he'd try for the cat. I agree with that. too."
Several years ago, in "Inward Journey," a collection of tributes to the late mystery novelist Ross Macdonald, Parker contributed a piece entitled "Heroes and Debts." He concluded it as follows: "It was not just that Ross Macdonald taught us how to write; he did something much more, he taught us how to read, and how to think about life, and maybe, in some small, but mattering way, how to live."
And while Parker says he would "rather not be tabbed as someone who tells other people how to live," his Spenser demonstrates exactly that - how to care, how not to be timid, how to learn and grow and share.
Which may be a definition of love. And explains why Robert Parker actually writes love stories.