This week it’s a little dimmer in Boston. A brilliant light is out. A literary light. Robert B. Parker, extraordinarily successful author of dozens of books about Boston sleuth Spenser, as well as other novels and young adult stories, died on Monday at his writing desk.
There isn’t a bookstore or airport in the free world that doesn’t have his titles on their shelves. And although he didn’t put Boston on the map, he helped keep it there, making this great city accessible to the reading public – its glory and feisty independence, its rich and varied culture, its history and beloved teams. Collectively, his Spenser books are a symphony to this city by the sea.
But I didn’t know Bob Parker just through his novels. He was my oldest and closest friend. He introduced me to Kathleen Krueger, my wife of 30 years. With his wife, Joan, we played tennis and double-dated and traveled to England. We watched each other’s kids grow up. His death is like the loss of a gravitational force in our lives – something solid and strong and dependable.
I knew Bob Parker five years before he became Robert B. Parker. I met him on my first day as an instructor in the Northeastern English Department in September 1969. I was just out of grad school, and he was in his second year of teaching. He was to be one of my officemates. The first time I saw him, he was standing in running shoes and swinging an invisible baseball bat while reciting a recipe for chocolate mousse to a colleague.
Bob Parker was probably the smartest person I’ve known and the quickest wit. His observations, never labored, were always incisive and sensible. His writing was brilliant and lean, which in part accounts for his immense popularity. Like his archetypal knight, Spenser, he was a fixer, a corrector. If you needed something, he was there – whether it was advice on children, carpentry, or someone to pick up the other end of a couch. And his love and devotion to Joan and his sons, David and Daniel, was immeasurable.
Bob was also a baseball encyclopedia who could quote stats back to the 1930s. He could recite the lyrics of most love songs. A phrase would come up during dinner, and he’d sing a bar from Vaughn or Sinatra or Mercer. How many people do you know who can recall the words from “Aba Daba Honeymoon’’?
One of Bob Parker’s greatest virtues was how true he was to himself – void of pretense and affectation which in part made him uncomfortable with academic life. One morning while jogging the NU track, he told me he was thinking of writing a novel. How could he? He didn’t know any big words. He wasn’t the sensitive artiste. In spite of that – or, perhaps because of that – he began writing his first Spenser novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript’’ which gave him a chance to take swipes at academe. It also got him fantasizing about writing his way out of the classroom. He was a good teacher, and taught a popular course on the Novel of Violence, but that wasn’t him. He preferred to write his own. And so he built a dynasty that added brilliantly to Boston’s rich literary landscape. There are fans who come to town from afar, armed with his books as walking and dining guides.
Although he enjoyed the benefits of celebrity, he was never taken by it – his or anyone else’s. If you met him and didn’t know who he was, he wouldn’t tell you. He hated self-promotion. He groaned in anticipation of book tours. He long ago wearied of interviews. But he did what he was supposed to do as Robert B. Parker. And he always came home Bob.
Over 40 years, we jogged hundreds of miles and shared hundreds of meals. And, although he has given the world some 75 books, I cannot recall a conversation about his writing that went more than a couple of sentences. “What are you working on?’’ “Spenser #42.’’ “What’s it about?’’ “Truth and beauty.’’ Books were what he did, and he seemed to turn them out once every two weeks.
He wrote about the things that were most important to him: love, family, and human decency. Behind the scenes, he lived a quiet, simple, and ordered life, spending most of his days at his writing desk, surrounded by photos of Joan and his sons, his dog Pearl on the couch. It was a life well-composed, just as he had wanted it – and perhaps his most successful creation.
So was his death – in a brilliant flash at his keyboard.
(Originally published in The Boston Globe.)