Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on September 17, 1932, to Carroll Snow, a telephone company executive, and Mary Pauline (Murphy) Parker. During his youth, he read widely in pulp fiction, learning the conventions of the hard-boiled detective. He attended Colby College, where he met Joan Hall, whom he married on August 26, 1956, two years after he graduated with his bachelor’s degree. He served in the U.S. Army from 1954 to 1956 in Korea. After completing his military service, he returned to school and received his master of arts degree from Boston University in 1957. He then sought employment as a technical writer to support his wife and son David, born in 1959. His second son, Daniel, was born in 1963. In 1957 he was a management trainee with Curtiss-Wright Company, Woodridge, New Jersey. From 1957 to 1959 he worked as a technical writer with Raytheon in Andover, Massachusetts, then went into advertising with Prudential Insurance Company in Boston from 1959 to 1962. At the same time, from 1960 to 1962, he was a partner in his own advertising agency, Parker-Farman Company.
In 1962 Parker’s wife, Joan, persuaded him to return to Boston University and complete his doctoral degree, which he received in 1970. While completing his doctorate, he held positions as an instructor at Boston University (1962-1964), the University of Lowell (1964-1966), and Massachusetts State College at Bridgewater (1966-1968). From 1968 to 1974 he was an assistant professor at Northeastern University. He completed his dissertation, “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald” in 1970 (later published as The Private Eye in Hammett and Chandler, 1984).
Parker estimated that it took him two and a half years of writing in his spare time to complete his first novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, published by Houghton in 1974. He was promoted to associate professor in 1974, and after publishing God Save the Child (1974), Mortal Stakes (1975), and Promised Land, he was promoted to full professor in 1976, the same year that Promised Land won an Edgar Award.
Parker became a househusband while his wife, Joan, attended graduate school to earn a master’s degree in early childhood development. She began a teaching and administrative career in education. In 1977 Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy two weeks later. Parker and his wife coauthored a personal account published the following year as Three Weeks in Spring (1978). This devastating experience made Joan aware of tensions in her marriage, and in 1982 she asked for a separation. During their four years of separation, they each underwent psychotherapy. They decided to remain together and purchased a house, which they remodeled to create two separate entrances leading to different levels, two kitchens, and two baths. Parker has made use of this arrangement in his fiction: Spenser and his longtime lover, Susan Silverman, have separate residences. Parker also has used his experience as the father of two sons in depicting Spenser’s relationship with Paul Giacomin, a lost young man whom Spenser befriends.
Parker died, at his writing desk at home in Cambridge Massachusetts according to the Washington Post report, on January 18, 2010. He was 77.