Private Lives of Great Detectives: From Sherlock Holmes to Spenser

Private Lives of Great Detectives: From Sherlock Holmes to Spenser

In 1973, I met another one-name tough guy via paperback and began following him, this one a Boston P.I. named Spenser. Robert B. Parker “grounded” Spenser by making him a former lieutenant during the Korean War, as Parker had been.

The Spenser character already had a heart of gold in the early novels: “I’ll do this case and take these bullets in the chest pro bono because the little girl doesn’t have a friend in the world.” But things began to cloud up for me when he met high-school counselor Susan Silverman and they entered into a “we might as well be married” relationship.

Boston and Susan Silverman keep changing and being rebuilt around Spenser. She gets a Ph.D. and becomes a psychiatrist, constantly pop-analyzing all of Spenser’s clients and deadly opponents, which finally made her insufferable to me. However, Spenser has stayed the same across the decades. (Susan Silverman finally ran away from Spenser, taking up with a gangster-killer, of course, and Spenser had to go out to the West Coast to “save her” by piling up more dead bodies than in any five of his other books combined.) Then they got “Pearl, the Wonder Dog” whom they call “our baby” and allow to sprawl between them on the bed after they make love. Parker the thief, if treated the way Susan Silverman or Pearl constantly treat Spenser, lapping him in the face, on the mouth (I mean Pearl, of course), would have put two .38 slugs in both of them, center mass, and called it a day.

I finally had to convince myself I was reading the new Spenser novels when they came out just in the hopes that Pearl the Wonder Dog would eventually die of old age. She finally did, but within pages, Spenser had driven to New Hampshire to buy a younger Pearl-clone/substitute whom the happy septuagenarian couple immediately named “Pearl” and carried on with the new “baby” without missing a beat.

I acknowledge that I try to forget that Spenser was an officer in the Korean War or that when Spenser was trying to become a professional prizefighter he fought Jersey Joe Wolcott (mentioned by Spenser even in the more recent novels) whose last public bout was in 1953. But when Susan Silverman says over the telephone to the traveling Spenser, “Would you like me to talk dirty to you now?” the niggling fact that the two are in their late ’70’s does sometimes ruin the mood for me.

When Robert B. Parker died suddenly in January of 2010 at the age of 77, I was shocked and saddened at the news—his characters had been part of my life for more than 40 years—but I was almost equally as shocked at the speed with which other writers took up the Spenser series, Parker’s Sonny Randall and Jesse Stone series, and his western novels. That’s the sign of greatness in modern bestselling genre-fiction authors; they’re allowed to die, but not to quit writing.

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