Robert B. Parker Parker, Robert B(rown) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert B(rown) Parker 1932–

American novelist.

Parker's crime fiction places him as a prominent contemporary author within the hard-boiled tradition of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. His best known works form a series consisting of nine novels, beginning with The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), and featuring Spenser, a tough but compassionate private-eye trained not only in espionage but also in gourmet cooking, physical fitness, and literature. One of Spenser's most endearing qualities is his sometimes self-depreciating but always witty sense of humor.

Parker wrote his dissertation on Hammett, Chandler, and Macdonald and although he knows the private eye tradition well, his success is largely based on the contemporary tone he maintains while remaining true to the conventions of the genre. Along with the standard element of suspense, Parker's emphasis lies in character development, through dialogue as much as through action, and the incorporation of social themes, most notably the distortion of the American dream.

Promised Land (1977), the fourth Spenser novel, was awarded the Edgar Allan Poe Award. Ironically, some critics feel this is one of his weaker works. For example, David Geherin, who acknowledges Parker's usual strength in characterization and dialogue, finds "an overemphasis on character analysis and an excessive talkiness that upsets the novelistic balance in Promised Land…."

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52 and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In the tradition of Hammett, Chandler and the other private-eye creators of the 1930's comes "The Godwulf Manuscript" by Robert B. Parker…. Parker's locale is Boston, and his private-eye—a tough, wise-cracking, unafraid, lonely, unexpectedly literate type—is in many respects the very exemplar of the species. He is called in to investigate the theft of a 14th-century illuminated manuscript from a college library. Along the way he runs into student activists, the mob, drugs, sex and the usual package. "The Godwulf Manuscript" is not notable for originality or ideas, but it is at least well written and does have a point of view about life. Its trouble is that it is simply too derivative to be anything more than lightweight.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "The Godwulf Manuscript," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1974, p. 12.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Parker must have learned a good deal from "Godwulf"; his new book is more deft, smoother and sharper in characterization. Where "Godwulf" read like a compilation of every private eye from Chandler on, "God Save the Child" has a great deal more personality and character.

Spenser still remains a smart aleck who shows his dislike for stupidity. He also is intelligent, educated, a gourmet cook and a mean man with his fists. In "God Save the Child" he is hired to find a missing 15-year-old boy; then the ransom notes start arriving. Spenser solves the case, of course, but along the way there are shrewd thrusts that animate the writing. The portrait of the mother is especially well done.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "God Save the Child," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 15, 1974, p. 10.

Robin Winks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert Parker is perhaps the best of [the writers attempting to replace Chandler]…. [Promised Land] shows him gaining mastery over his material all of the time. The dialogue is good, without that cutesy-tough overtone one finds in so many imitators of Chandler, and while Spenser remains a bit self-romanticized, he is no more so than Marlowe and Archer. Anyone who complains about the lack of Chandlers ought to try [either Mortal Stakes or Promised Land]….

Robin Winks, in a review of "Mortal Stakes," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1977 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 176, No. 12, March 19, 1977, p. 36.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert B. Parker has created Spenser, a Marlowe-like private eye who drinks a lot and makes tasty omelets, salad dressings, and women. In The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) he is inexplicably rude (Marlowe never is): to a university president who has been only courteous, he sneers, "Is there something you'd like me to detect or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year's commencement?" The detective is less interesting, however, than his antagonist, a small, weak, lecherous professor of medieval literature who early in the story is revealed to be also a radical, dope pusher, and murderer. This paragon is married to a huge, adoring woman who mothers him and eventually takes five bullets in the stomach so the little man can escape. He does. Spenser finds him cowering in the bathtub where he has wet himself in terror. Once under arrest, however, the medievalist revives and, assuming a lofty tone, lectures the police department on the brilliance of his criminal career. At this Boston university, administrators are phonies, professors cowardly murderers, and students (except the heroine) doped and mindless radicals. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid," said Raymond Chandler, Parker's model; but Spenser, despite a certain vitality, doesn't quite make the grade, perhaps because all imitations are only imitations, perhaps because a tough guy who bullies presidents, deans, professors, and students just isn't tough enough.

Agate Nesaule Krouse and Margot Peters, "Murder in Academe" (reprinted by permission of the authors), in Southwest Review, Vol. 62, No. 4, Autumn, 1977, pp. 371-78.∗

Robin Winks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Judas Goat is not [Robert Parker's] best book, but it is very good. Parker is one of those authors who … are always being compared with Chandler and Ross Macdonald …, and while the comparison is apt as a label for quality and tone, it no longer is very helpful, since Parker has established a voice of his own. The Judas Goat is tough, cynical, sexy in a realistic way, and just a mite sentimental, and it sends Parker's series detective, Spenser, off to London, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam to seek out (and as it happens, to destroy) a tiny band of terrorists who, in bombing a London restaurant, have maimed an American millionaire and killed his wife and daughters. Personal vengeance, stalking dogs, hounds of heaven, and yes judas goats are the subjects here, and it is all handled with taste and authenticity.

Robin Winks, in a review of "The Judas Goat," in The New Republic; (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 19, November 4, 1978, p. 54.

H.R.F. Keating

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A] literary strain has been present more or less in all [Robert Parker's] novels, even in Mortal Stakes which has a baseball setting (Parker is an avid sportsman). Spenser has been well called "the thinking man's private eye": it is easy to detect the presence not far over his shoulder of an author fully conversant with the whole tradition of the novelist as seer or even as therapist. There is a concern with human beings that rises at times to compassion and perhaps falls at other times to that commonish complaint among American novelists "psychology showing through".

But the seriousness that this indicates is always well compensated for by Parker's dialogue. Spenser is a wisecracking guy in the firm tradition of the Chandler shamus, and above and beyond this all the conversations in the books are splendidly swift and sharp. Parker likes to refer to the minutiae of current American life or to that store of trivial memories that any 40-year-old American has, and this gives his pages a liveliness and an up-to-dateness which is decidedly refreshing.

H.R.F. Keating, "The Classic Private Eye," in The Times, London (© Times Newspapers Limited 1978), November 4, 1978, p. 9.

Newgate Callendar

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Robert B. Parker has written five books starring Spenser, the tough Boston operator, a one-man army. In his new book, "Wilderness" …, a different hero is introduced—a man named Aaron Newman, a writer, jogger, big and strong but saddled with doubts of self and wife.

Jogging along peacefully one morning, Newman sees a murder and can identify the killer, who turns out to be a psychopathic gangster. He tells the police what he knows, but when the gangster threatens his wife, Newman recants his evidence. But can he now live with himself? And how does his wife, who can be very bitchy, feel about it?

Thus, while there is plenty of action in "Wilderness"—indeed, nothing but action—the book ends up as a psychodrama in which a married couple is put through unusual stresses, understanding each other a great deal more when everything is over. The writing is as skillful as the previous Parker books have been. The author even makes credible the generally unbelievable situation in which normal citizens suddenly turn into tigers, taking on trained killers. Mr. Parker stacks the cards more evenly that most authors. The last part of the book takes place in the wilderness, with both sides stalking each other—and in the wilderness a city gangster is at a disadvantage.

Newgate Callendar, in a review of "Wilderness," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1979, p. 22.

David Geherin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It should come as no surprise to a reader of The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) to discover striking similarities between it and the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, particularly when he remembers that Parker wrote his doctoral dissertation on the novels of those three writers. What is surprising, however, is the extent to which he has managed to stake out for himself an original claim to the territory already overrun by would-be successors to the three earlier masters of the hard-boiled detective novel. Parker manages the tricky task of evoking echoes of all three writers while at the same time creating a character and developing a style that are uniquely his.


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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In "Early Autumn," by Robert B. Parker, the private eye has come a long way from the dissolute days when he was a hell-raising, hard-drinking womanizer with a license to carry a gun. Spenser, Mr. Parker's detective, is a baby-sitter in the seventh novel of this popular series.

He salvages Paul, a 15-year-old boy whose divorced parents each want him only to spite the other. Paul is "thin, nasty, apathetic and withdrawn." In a surge of supererogation, Spenser takes him to Maine and starts him running, boxing, lifting weights, reading, talking, listening to music and building a house. As you can see, "Early Autumn" is a bildungsroman.

In spite of Spenser's baby-sitting, he's a pretty rough customer and "Early Autumn" mixes violence and compassion in a better-than-average way. The book has one small flaw and one not so small: Mr. Parker says jab when he means a straight left and Spenser and Susan wisecrack during their lovemaking.

Anatole Broyard, in a review of "Early Autumn," in The New York Times (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1981, p. C20.

Peter S. Prescott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Last year in "Early Autumn," Spenser made a man of a 15-year-old boy vicitimized by his affectless parents. "Ceremony" seems an alternative version of that novel. This time the child with the destructive parents is a girl, a high-school dropout who volunteers for a life of prostitution, then finds herself a prisoner of it: finally, when freed by Spenser, she finds she has no other talent, no other aim in life. Spenser is faced with an interesting moral decision: what is best for this homeless child? Unpaid, saddled with a job he never wanted but now cannot let go, he's a modern paladin. "It's a way to live," he says. "Anything else is confusion." "How did you ever get to be so big without growing up?" Susan asks. It's lines like that, puncturing the private-eye ethic without leaving lasting damage, which make the Spenser novels so engaging.

The contrast between Spenser and Susan's loving sexiness and the calculated sexual exploitation of children works very nicely here. Another asset is Spenser's sidekick, an improbable, ever-loyal, brutally efficient black man named Hawk. Parker is treading on thin ice with him—his black man does the dirty work the white man really shouldn't do (in "Early Autumn" Hawk shot the mobster, who needed shooting, when Spenser couldn't)—but he slides over it with good humor. And in "Ceremony" he brings off with good taste a story about an appalling subject. (pp. 71-2)

Peter S. Prescott, "The New Stellar Sleuths: 'Ceremony'," in Newsweek (copyright 1982, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCIX, No. 23, June 7, 1982, pp. 71-2.