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In Honor of Robert B. Parker

10/25/2010

I was fortunate to be a friend of the late Robert B. Parker and his wife, Joan. When Bouchercon, the annual convention of the Mystery Writers of America, invited me to serve on a panel to discuss Parker’s work (along with Lee Goldberg, Dick Lochte, and Mark Coggins, moderated by Russel McLean), I asked Joan whether she wanted to send along a letter for me to read aloud. She was happy to have a chance to reflect and reminisce about Bob on a personal level. Here’s her letter. I think any Parker fan will be interested to learn a bit more about the man behind Spenser (and Hawke):

I want to thank the organizers of this year’s Bouchercon for devoting a panel to my husband’s work. I’d also like to take this opportunity to clear up an important misconception: I am not Susan Silverman.

I’m nowhere near as vain . . . I swear.

From when he was a kid, Bob read mysteries — or “potboilers,” as they used to be called, before the genre achieved the long overdue respect it now enjoys. His favorite by far was Raymond Chandler, because of Chandler’s hero, Philip Marlowe, that knight errant with a tough-guy exterior and an unwavering code of honor. So when Bob finally sat down at our kitchen table one summer, determined to write a mystery of his own, he created the character of Spenser very much in the Philip Marlowe mode, but updated for a very different time.

What very few people know about Bob was that it wasn’t just his fictional alter-ego who lived by a stringent moral code. Bob did too, though I didn’t know that when I first met him at the Colby College freshman dance in 1950, a wise-ass greaser with a lit cigarette tucked behind his ear. In fact, I spent most of my college years trying to avoid him. But as so many of Bob Parker’s readers would later discover, behind that glib, wisecracking façade were profound depths and a strong ethical sense. When his college frat refused to let in blacks or Jews he quit, but only after delivering a blistering speech that ended with the words, “F— you.” It’s hard for younger writers and readers to understand how racist and sexist our society was when Bob and I entered college. This was long before Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. Bob was a feminist before anyone had ever heard of the word. That’s why he created Susan Silverman: he thought it was time for private-eye writers to stop treating women as accessories, as “molls.” As much as he admired Philip Marlowe, Bob wanted a protagonist who wasn’t a loner, who had a significant woman in his life, and who didn’t put up with the casual racism we all lived with. I think that’s why he had to create the character of Hawke. Hawke was not only Spenser’s dark side, he was Bob Parker’s dark side as well — his id. Hawke was the guy who could beat up people who needed beating up, when law enforcement couldn’t deliver justice.

I suppose it’s fitting that Bob died at his desk. He loved to write almost as much as he loved his family. He hated to leave the house and did so only under extreme duress.

I know that somewhere up there Bob is smiling — in gratitude at this honor from his fellow writers . . . but most of all relieved he didn’t have to get on a plane and fly across the country for this.

I thank you.
Joan Parker