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


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

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

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

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.


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

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

[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...

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Newgate Callendar

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...

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David Geherin

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

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...

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Peter S. Prescott

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...

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