The world of the Black Mask Boys was always slightly supercilious and more than a little self-satisfied. Their descendants often degenerated into dime-store Freudianism (Ross Macdonald) or facile passages of second-hand Götterdämmerung (Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder novels, for instance.) The P.I. genre’s decades of longueurs happily led to a counter-reformation best seen in the novels of writers like Elmore Leonard, Andrew Vachss, and the recently departed Donald E. Westlake, a Voltaire of the crime novel.
The P.I. genre’s pipe dream authenticity was over almost before it started. Real private detectives were and continue to be labor-hating finks, spies, and scab-herders when they are not outright thugs and leg-breakers themselves. But the power of the P.I.’s narrative voice, like that of characters in Hemingway, Fitzgerald, or Faulkner (but made accessible through the common framework of genre), laid all before it. Sam Spade, the Continental Op, and Philip Marlowe have no more claims to figuring reality than Lord Peter Wimsey, but their legions of kitchen-sink offspring are still sent marching into the market, redolent of belatedness.
Anyone who reads these P.I. novels has probably read more than a few by one of the last masters of knight-errantry, Robert B. Parker (1932-2010). In a career spanning almost forty years, Parker wrote some fifty novels. Most featured the faultless and flawless Boston P.I. named Spenser.
After spending about twenty-five years writing almost exclusively about Spenser, Parker began a particularly fecund period of late creativity in the mid-1990s. He broadened his market penetration by creating a couple of other brands, turning out about two books a year. He entered the “woman P.I.” sweepstakes long after its feminist-inspired energy had expired, writing five novels about Sunny Randle. The character began life as part of a Hollywood project for one-time TV actress Helen Hunt. When nothing came of the project, Parker (good artisan that he was) saved what material he could and built something that he could sell. Parker later created a series of novels written in the third person about Jesse Stone, police chief in a small coastal Massachusetts town called Paradise. (Parker, a reformed and financially liberated college professor, never left an allusion alone.) Stone was a pop-fiction version of a complicated man often at cross-purposes with himself, beset by his own immaturity as he confronted middle age.
Stone was a far cry from Spenser. There the fully self-integrated, self-confident, and un-conflicted man attained the heights of Übermensch. The Spenser novels began with plots culled from the junk drawer of thirty years of P.I. fiction: the missing dingus of The Godwulf Manuscript (1973); a broken family in God Save the Child (1974); blackmail in Mortal Stakes (1975); and crooked real estate developers in Promised Land (1976). Some grave errors in aesthetic judgment arose when Parker pushed the series to take up arms against Olympic terrorists in The Judas Goat (1978) and a Thomas Harris-style serial killer in Crimson Joy (1988). The best Spenser novels each featured clever and idiosyncratic readings of human relations: machismo of various stripes confronting radical feminism in the excellent Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980); a droll re-treading of “Big Two-Hearted River” in Early Autumn (1980); and a two-fisted clean-up of a company town in A Catskill Eagle (1985). Among the later novels, two that stand out powerfully are the divorce comedy Hugger Mugger (2000) and the “some people you can’t help” shocks of Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006). Both these later books depict lives gone sour in the living, conveyed with both brevity and assurance.
In the Spenser series Parker employed a sarcastic and dismissive tone of voice which academics have come to call Chandleresque. (Indeed, Parker “finished” an abandoned Chandler story called Poodle Springs  and created a sequel to The Big Sleep in Perchance to Dream . All the notes were present, but the music was not the same.) Spenser, however, was not simply a Philip Marlowe echo chamber; he could philosophize and pontificate with the best of them in a style reminiscent of the windier passages in Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon and later “meaning-of-life” miseries Papa visited upon the reading public, of which Life magazine-enshrined The Old Man and the Sea remains the most notorious.
As the Spenser novels progressed, they became primarily concerned with the high regard others had in the hero. Characters given space to reflect and marvel upon Spenser’s unsurpassable Emersonian self-reliance included his longtime companion Susan Silverman, various petty hoodlums, crooks, and cops, and a one-time hit man named Hawk whose own coolness reached supernatural proportions and thus reflected even greater glory on Spenser himself. The mysteries in later novels filled alternate chapters between endlessly reiterated scenes of Spenser’s ethically empyrean private life: expertly cooking meals, expertly making love, expertly sitting in his small office reading the works of that sine qua non of style, Simon Schama. (Of Schama it can only be said that the pleasures are momentary, the diabetes forever.)
Spenser could always be relied upon to cock a snook at the powerful and stick a thumb in the eye of the worst social parasites and predators. He safeguarded and avenged the beaten, exploited, and endangered while at the same time demanding they learn to take care of themselves (under his tutelage). These victims, Spenser’s clients, were often the biggest obstacle to their own development and maturity, and Parker wisely spent time and took care in depicting the methods Spenser used to help these people figure out how to get out of their own way.
One suspects Robert B. Parker was much like Spenser: fit, confident, and ready to prove it; able to turn necessities into philosophies. Parker’s strongest novel was All Our Yesterdays (1994), a non-series novel depicting — not without stereotypes — several generations of Boston cops from an Irish-American family. Parker here gave himself the luxury of time and space to work within, and the result was a longer and more richly complicated work of fiction.
The narcotic peddled by P.I. novels is that there are individual solutions to great social crises and profound crimes and injustices bred by the normal workings of capitalism. Domestic cruelty, child abuse, prostitution, and violence are seen as akin to faulty furnaces and leaky pipes: hire the right professional to fix it, and peace will be yours. Collective activity in P.I. novels is strictly limited to vigilante violence; Parker was second to none in his lovingly recondite depictions of such violence: the reader’s payoff for dozens of chapters establishing the hero’s unassailable moral right to perpetrate it. But this was small-scale Bonapartism, erotica for those who dream of a man on horseback to set things right in everyday life. Parker’s often clever and distancing sardonicism never threatened that bottom line.
Obituaries of Parker can be found here and here.
Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.