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Robert B. Parker, 77

Crime novelist, Spenser creator Robert B. Parker dies at 77

FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2006 file photo, author Robert Parker poses in his office in Cambridge, Mass. The author of the popular Spenser private eye books about a hard-nosed Boston private investigator, died Monday, Jan. 18, 2010 in Cambridge. He was 77. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2006 file photo, author Robert Parker poses in his office in Cambridge, Mass. The author of the popular Spenser private eye books about a hard-nosed Boston private investigator, died Monday, Jan. 18, 2010 in Cambridge. He was 77. (AP Photo/Chitose Suzuki, File) (Chitose Suzuki - AP)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Robert B. Parker, 77, a popular and prolific author of hard-boiled American crime fiction who was best known for the 37-book Spenser series, which became an ABC television show in the 1980s, died Jan. 18 at his writing desk at home in Cambridge, Mass. The cause of death was not known, but his longtime agent, Helen Brann, said it appeared to have been a heart attack.

Mr. Parker helped revive the detective fiction genre with Spenser (no first name), a wise-cracking, street-smart and surprisingly literate Boston private eye.

The character -- a former boxer and former state police officer -- is a gourmet cook who grapples with complex relationships with a witty female companion, an African American alter ego and a foster son. Named for Edmund Spenser, a Shakespeare contemporary, the character and series became favorites of literati who enjoyed crisp, witty prose.

Mr. Parker's work was notable for its quick pace, evocative descriptions, sharp dialogue and focus on themes such as women in contemporary society and the troubled status of adolescents. His protagonists were tough guys -- prone to violence but true to a moral code as they protected a lesbian writer in "Looking for Rachel Wallace" (1980) and investigated drug smuggling in "Pale Kings and Princes" (1987) and "Pastime" (1991).

Mr. Parker wrote 65 books in 37 years and was among the top 10 best-selling authors in the world, Brann said, with 6 million to 8 million books sold. He received the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for best novel (1977) and its Grand Master Award (2002) and Mystery Ink's Gumshoe Award for Lifetime Achievement (2007).

In addition to the "Spenser: For Hire" TV series, which starred Robert Urich, Mr. Parker's Jesse Stone novels became CBS TV movies starring Tom Selleck in 2005. "Appaloosa," his 2005 Western, was made into a 2008 movie directed by and starring Ed Harris.

Mr. Parker created a third fictional private eye, Sunny Randall, at the request of Academy Award-winning actress Helen Hunt, who asked him to write a novel with a female investigator. The first book in the series did not become a feature film, but it was a bestseller.

His prodigious output was the result of a disciplined work ethic: He wrote five pages a day, five days a week, 50 weeks a year.

"I started writing the Jesse Stone novels because I realized that at this point in my career it takes me three to four months to write a Spenser novel and as a result I have a lot of time on my hands," he told Bookreporter.com in 2000.

His next book, "Split Image," a Jesse Stone book, is due out next month. He had turned in several books that have not been published, including some in the Spenser series, Brann said.

Robert Brown Parker was born Sept. 17, 1932, in Springfield, Mass., and graduated in 1954 from Colby College in Maine. He went into the Army for the next two years. He received a master's degree in 1957 and a doctorate in 1971, both in English from Boston University. His doctoral dissertation was a study of the private eye in the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald.

Mr. Parker earned his living as a technical writer at Raytheon and in the advertising department of Prudential Insurance until the doctoral degree got him a full professorship at Northeastern University in Boston, where he began to write seriously.

His first novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript," sold within three weeks of completion. Over the next five years, Mr. Parker wrote four more Spenser novels, each increasingly successful. In 1979, he was able to quit teaching and devote himself full time to writing.

So clearly and consciously did Mr. Parker consider himself an heir of Chandler's that the Chandler estate in 1988 asked him to complete a 30-page manuscript left uncompleted at Chandler's death.

The result was "Poodle Springs," a novel that carries both authors' names on its title page. It was panned by the New York Times Book Review as "a chaos of tawdry shortcuts." Mr. Parker, who claimed not to read reviews of his work, nevertheless wrote a sequel to Chandler's classic "The Big Sleep," calling it "Perchance to Dream."

Survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Joan Parker of Cambridge, and two sons.

In interview after interview, Mr. Parker refused the opportunity to make the idea of writing detective fiction seem mysterious.

"The art of writing a mystery is just the art of writing fiction," he told the Boston Globe magazine in 2007. "You create interesting characters and put them into interesting circumstances and figure out how to get them out of them. No one is usually surprised at the outcome of my books."


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