On Monday, Janaury 18, 2010 Robert B. Parker joined Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane in that great heavenly mystery writer’s group. A massive heart attack struck Robert Parker down while seated at his desk working on his latest novel. This week’s issue of The Culture Alliance’s Fiction Friday newsletter focused on Mr. Parker’s work.

Tom Nolan, editor of Ross Macdonald’s The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator, notes that Parker “revivified the P.I. genre” building upon aspects of the genre’s greats:

[T]he bantering dialogue of Raymond Chandler, the concern for young people expressed by Ross Macdonald, the swift action of Dashiell Hammett, even the violence of Mickey Spillane.

Nolan continues:

He wrote dialogue that at once informed, amused and gave a sense of character; and he conjured characters a reader wanted to spend more time with—especially Spenser, a fixed point in a footloose world, take him or leave him. A pragmatist whose ethics were situational. A tough and decent type who did what needed to be done in the service of a moral cause, affirming the worth of the individual regardless of race, sexual orientation, social status, age or occupation. He made timeless points that need to be remade every generation, in a society ever able to find ways to betray the public and private trust.

T he following excerpt, from Sudden Mischief, provides a great example of the Parker’s felicity with dialog. In this Spenser series entry, Boston’s famous detective investigates some serious charges levied against Susan Silverman’s ex-husband. Susan Silverman is Spenser’s primary romantic interest throughout the series. In the opening chapter, Susan meets Spenser at the Four Seasons Hotel.

“I need a favor,” Susan said to me.

Her black hair was shiny and smelled slightly of lavender. Her eyes were impossibly big, and full of intelligence and readiness, and something else. The something else had to do with throwing caution to the winds, though I’d never been able to give it a name. People looked at her when she came in. She had the quality that made people wonder if she were someone important. Which she was.

“You know I’m the only guy in the room knows the lyrics to `Green Dolphin Street,'” I said, “and you want me to sing them softly to you.”

“Don’t make me call the bouncer,” she said.

“At the Four Seasons? You’d have to tip him before he threw you out.”

“It’s about my ex-husband,” Susan said.

“The geek?”

“He’s not a geek;” Susan said. “If you knew him, you’d kind of like him.”

“Don’t confuse me,” I said.

Winter played “Lost in Loveliness.” The waitress looked at my empty beer glass. I nodded. Susan’s glass was still full.

“He came to see me last week,” Susan said. “Out of the blue. I haven’t seen him in years. He’s in trouble. He needs help.”

“I’m sure he does,” I said.

“He needs help from you.”

My second beer came. I thought about ordering a double shot of Old Thompsons to go with it but decided it was more manly to face this moment sober. I drank some of my beer.

“Okay,” I said.

“I . . .” She stopped and looked out the windows for a moment. “I guess I’m kind of embarrassed to ask you,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said. “It is kind of embarrassing.”

“But I am going to ask you anyway.”

“Who else?” I said. …

You can continue reading this excerpt here.

An interview, available at RobertBParker.net, notes that Spenser diverges from the classic P.I. often portrayed as a loner. This is an interesting point since Parker’s inspiration was Chandler and Hammett.

Queston: You read the classic detective stories in your youth, and your doctoral dissertation was on Chandler and Hammett. When Spenser first came to be, how influential were the classic models of the private eye?

Robert B. Parker: The dissertation took me two weeks and did what it was supposed to do (get me tenure so I’d have time to write). But certainly when I began I was consciously trying to emulate Raymond Chandler.

Q: With Spenser you have very obviously diverged from the classic form of the private eye as a loner. Did you set out to do that from the beginning, or was it something that happened as the character evolved?

RBP: I am a happier man than Chandler was, and the center of my being is Joan and my sons. They are not only context. They are life. It was inevitable, I think, that I would evolve Spenser into a man with a similar center.

Q: One of the themes that seems to emerge consistently from the books is father-and-son relationships, e.g., Spenser’s relationship with Paul Giacomin. This ties into a larger theme, responsibility for those who can’t protect themselves. Would you say that this is perhaps Spenser’s chief “operating principle”?

RBP: Spenser’s operating principle is probably living life on his own terms, happily with Susan, as best he can. But obviously there is a knight-errant dimension about him, which Hawk’s ferocious practicality balances off.

You can see the great Robert Urich as Spenser in the ABC series “Spenser: For Hire,” which ran 1985 – 1988. The series pilot was based on the novel Promised Land.

Also included in TCA’s Fiction Friday newsletter was an excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s essay “How to Write a Detective Story.” As a teaser to get people to read Chesterton, one of the “great” principles involves a horse while others focus on light, simplicity and, last but not least, that which all stories begin with, “an idea.”

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