Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1956 Parker married Joan H. Parker, whom he claimed to have met as a toddler at a birthday party. They spent their childhoods in the same neighborhood. After earning a BA degree from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, Parker served as a soldier in the US Army Infantry in Korea. In 1957, he earned his Master’s degree in English literature from Boston University and then worked in advertising and technical writing until 1962. Parker received a PhD in English literature from Boston University in 1971. His dissertation, titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality,” discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Parker wrote his first novel in 1971 while at Northeastern University. He became a full professor in 1976, and turned to full-time writing in 1979 with five Spenser novels to his credit.
Parker’s popular Spenser novels are known for his characters of varied races and religions. According to critic Christina Nunez, Parker’s “inclusion of [characters of] other races and sexual persuasions” lends his writings a “more modern feel”. For example, the Spenser series characters include Hawk and Chollo, African-American and Mexican-American, respectively, as well as Spenser’s Jewish girlfriend, Susan, various Russians, Ukrainians, Chinese, a gay cop, Lee Farrell, and even a gay mob boss, Gino Fish. The homosexuality of both his sons gives his writing ” sensibility,” Ms. Nunez feels, ” which strengthens Parker’s sensibility [toward gays].” In 1985 Spenser was made into a successful television series, Spenser for Hire which starred Robert Urich, Avery Brooks and Barbara Stock.
Parker created female detective Sunny Randall at the request of actress Helen Hunt, who wanted him to write a part for her to play. He wrote the first book, and the film version was planned for 2000, but never materialized. However, his publisher liked the character and asked him to continue with the series. Another figure created by Parker is Jesse Stone, a troubled former LAPD detective, who starts a new career as a police chief in a small New England town. Between 1997 and 2010, he wrote nine novels featuring Jesse Stone, four of which have been adapted as a series of TV movies by CBS starring Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone, beginning from the fifth movie with original stories.
Aside from crime writing, Parker also produced several Western novels, including Appaloosa, and children’s books. Although Parker’s work has not been the topic of much literary criticism, his Westerns have received critical attention. Chris Dacus, who has written on other authors like Cormac McCarthy, has written of the intellectual depth and importance of Parker’s Westerns in The Stoic Western Hero: Robert B. Parker’s Westerns. In 1994 Parker collaborated with Japanese photographer Kasho Kumagai on a coffee table book called Spenser’s Boston, exploring the city through Spenser’s “eyes” via high quality, 4-color photos. In addition to Parker’s introduction, excerpts from several of the Spenser novels were included. Parker and his wife created an independent film company called Pearl Productions, based in Boston. It is named after their German short-haired pointer, Pearl.
Parker and his wife had two sons, David and Daniel. Originally, the character of Spenser was to have been called “David,” but Parker didn’t want to appear to favor one of his sons over the other. Parker therefore omitted Spenser’s first name entirely, and, to this day, the first name of the fictional Spenser remains unknown. Parker and his wife Joan separated at one point but then came to an unusual arrangement: she lived on one floor of a large townhouse, he on another, and they shared the others. This living arrangement is mirrored in Spenser’s private life: his girlfriend, Susan, had an aversion to marriage and living together full-time. Living separately suited them both, although they were fully committed to each other. Explaining the arrangement in an interview on CBS “Sunday Morning”, Parker said, “I want to make love to my wife for the rest of my life, but I never want to sleep with her again.” He had a great fondness for dogs, including German Pointers. Dogs were included in his Spenser stories, aging along with the character and appearing in the ongoing series of novels.
Parker received three nominations and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America. He received the first award, the “Best Novel Award” in 1977, for the fourth novel in the Spenser series, Promised Land. In 1983 he received the Maltese Falcon Award, Japan, for Early Autumn. In 1990 he shared, with wife Joan, a nomination for “Best Television Episode” for the TV series B.L. Stryker; however, the award went to David J. Burke and Alfonse Ruggiero Jr. for Wiseguy. In 2002 he received the Grand Master Award Edgar for his collective oeuvre. In 2008 he was awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award. Parker died suddenly of a heart attack, sitting at his desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts on January 18, 2010. He was 77.
- September, 17, 1932
- Springfield, Massachusetts
- January, 18, 2010
- Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cause of Death
- heart attack