The cause was a heart attack, said his agent of 37 years, Helen Brann. She said that Mr. Parker had been thought to be in splendid health, and that he died at his desk, working on a book. He wrote five pages a day, every day but Sunday, she said.
Mr. Parker wrote more than 60 books all told, including westerns and young-adult novels, but he churned out entertaining detective stories with a remarkable alacrity that made him one of the country’s most popular writers. In recent years he had come up with two new protagonists: Jesse Stone, an alcoholic ex-ballplayer turned small-town chief of police, who was featured in nine novels written since 1997, including “Split Image,” to be published next month; and Sunny Randall, a fashion-conscious, unlucky-in-love, daughter-of-a-cop private eye created at the request of the actress Helen Hunt, who was hoping for a juicy movie role. No movie was made, but the first Sunny Randall novel, “Family Honor,” was published in 1999, and five more have followed.
It was Spenser, though — spelled “like the poet,” as the character was wont to point out (his first name was never revealed) — who was Mr. Parker’s signature creation. He appeared for the first time in 1973 in “The Godwulf Manuscript,” in which he is hired by a university to retrieve a stolen medieval document, an investigation that triggers a murder. The first pages of the book revealed much of what readers came to love about Spenser — his impatience with pomposity, his smart-alecky wit, his self-awareness and supreme self-confidence.
“Look, Dr. Forbes,” Spenser says to the long-winded college president who is hiring him. “I went to college once. I don’t wear my hat indoors. And if a clue comes along and bites me on the ankle, I grab it. I am not, however, an Oxford don. I am a private detective. Is there something you’d like me to detect, or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year’s commencement?”
A conscious throwback to hard-boiled detectives like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but with a sensitivity born of the age of feminism and civil rights, Spenser is a bruiser in body but a softie at heart, someone who never shies from danger or walks away from a threat to the innocent. Mr. Parker gave him many of his own traits. Spenser is an admirer of any kind of expertise. He believes in psychotherapy. He’s a great cook. He’s a boxer, a weightlifter and a jogger, a consumer of doughnuts and coffee, a privately indulgent appreciator (from a distance) of pretty women, a Red Sox fan, a dog lover. (Mr. Parker owned a series of short-haired pointers, all named Pearl, like their fictional incarnation.)
Most crucially, Spenser is faithful in love (to his longtime companion, Susan Silverman, a psychologist) and in friendship (to his frequent partner in anti-crime, a dazzlingly charming, morally idiosyncratic black man named Hawk). And usually with the two of them as seconds, he has remained indomitable, vanquishing crime bosses, drug dealers, sex fiends, cold-blooded killers, corrupt politicians and several other varieties of villain.
Mr. Parker wrote the Spenser novels in the first person, employing the blunt, masculine prose style that is often described as Hemingwayesque. But his writing also seems self-aware, even tongue-in-cheek, as though he recognized how well worn such a path was. And his dialogue was especially arch, giving Spenser an air of someone who takes very few things seriously and raises an eyebrow at everything else. Mr. Parker’s regular readers became familiar with the things that provoke Spenser’s suspicion: showy glamour, ostentatious wealth, self-aggrandizement, fern bars, fancy sports clubs and any kind of haughtiness or presumption.
Spenser is, in other words, what Marlowe might have been in a more modern world (and living in Boston rather than Los Angeles). Unsurprisingly, Mr. Parker considered Chandler one of the great American writers of the 20th century. (He audaciously finished an incomplete Chandler manuscript, “Poodle Springs”). And he has been often cited by critics and other mystery writers as the guy who sprung the Chandleresque detective free from the age of noir.
“I read Parker’s Spenser series in college,” the best-selling writer Harlan Coben said in a 2007 interview with The Atlantic Monthly. “When it comes to detective novels, 90 percent of us admit he’s an influence, and the rest of us lie about it.”
Robert Brown Parker was a large man of large appetites that were nonetheless satisfied with relative ease. He was as unpretentious and self-aware as Spenser, his agent, Ms. Brann said.
“All he needed to be happy was his family and writing,” she said. “There were always wonderful things in his refrigerator. People were always after him to do cookbooks.” She paused.
“He loved doughnuts,” she said.
He was born in Springfield, Mass., on Sept. 17, 1932, the only child of working-class parents. His father worked for the telephone company. He attended Colby College in Maine, graduating in 1954, then served in the Army in Korea, after the Korean War. He earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in literature from Boston University, and taught there as well as at Northeastern University.
His novels were adapted many times for television and the movies. From 1985 to 1988 Spenser appeared as the central character of a television series, “Spenser: For Hire,” starring Robert Urich. The Jesse Stone series was the inspiration for seven television movies starring Tom Selleck, including one to be broadcast in the spring. “Appaloosa,” a western starring Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen made from Mr. Parker’s novel of the same name, was released in 2008.
Mr. Parker’s editor, Chris Pepe, said that in addition to the new Jesse Stone novel, Putnam would publish a new western by Mr. Parker in the spring; two additional Spenser novels are in production but unscheduled, she said.
Mr. Parker first met his wife, Joan, at a birthday party when they were 3 years old, or so the story goes; in any case, they encountered each other at Colby and married in 1956. Much of the relationship between Spenser and Susan — including a period of trouble when they are apart — reflects Mr. Parker’s with his wife. She survives him, as do two sons, David, of Manhattan, and Daniel, of Los Angeles.
Most of his books were dedicated to his wife.
One of the most prolific writers of modern times was the “dean of American crime fiction” Robert B. Parker, who died in 2011. Among his vast bibliography is a trio of uber-popular series: “Spenser,” “Jesse Stone” and “Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.”
In 2012, the Parker estate made a deal with publisher Putnam to continue those franchises, awarding them to three veteran writers. Ace Atkins has written four “Spenser” books, with a fifth due in 2016. Robert Knott’s three “Cole-Hitch” installments will be followed next year by a fourth. Michael Brandman wrote three “Jesse Stone” mysteries before being replaced by Reed Farrel Coleman, author of 23 novels including the recently concluded Moe Prager P.I. series.
Coleman, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, is under contract for four “Jesse Stone” novels. His second, “Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins,” will be out Sept. 8 (Putnam, $27, 342 pages). In it, Jesse and his deputies must solve four gruesome murders.
In his younger years, the Jesse Stone character was a Triple-A star shortstop destined for major-league baseball when an injury ended his dream. Later, alcohol abuse ruined his second career as an LAPD detective.
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Parker wrote nine “Jesse Stone” mysteries, made into eight TV movies with Tom Selleck as the police chief of small-town Paradise, Mass. A ninth, “Lost in Paradise,” is due to air on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel this fall.
I talked with Coleman by phone from his home in Lake Grove, N.Y., “a town with no lake and no grove,” he said.
Q: Did you know Robert Parker?
A: I met Bob casually at (author events) at a bookstore in Cambridge.
Q: How did you become Jesse Stone’s caretaker?
A: Apparently I was on a list of one (to resume the series). They didn’t just hand me the job, though. I had to discuss a plot and write a 50-page sample. They loved it and gave me the contract. (When) somebody hands over a franchise to you, you’ve got to be grateful and honored.
Q: You’re an A-list mystery writer, but surely the association with the Parker legend is great exposure.
A: It really helps a career to inherit a million fans.
Q: What was the most challenging part of transitioning from Moe Prager to Jesse Stone?
A: Moe was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. The only thing Jesse wears on his sleeve is his sleeve. Jesse expresses his feelings through action, whereas Moe expressed his by expressing them. (Also) I had to go from writing intimate first-person to third-person. Since it’s in third-person, I don’t have to sound like (Parker) as long as I’m true to his characters. I like to think I have the capacity to be more than a one-trick pony, although my wife would disagree.
Q: You must have felt some weight when you assumed the series.
A: I could have paralyzed myself thinking about it, so I tried not to worry too much. I had to find a way to make the character mine, and Jesse’s baseball injury was it. Bob never really talked much about the regret that followed it, so that was my way in. We all struggle with something, and Jesse happens to struggle with alcohol. Regret and struggle are part of what makes us human. In this regard, they also make Jesse relatable to readers.
The second thing I had to figure out was if I was going to imitate Bob. My friend Tom, who owns every recording Elvis Presley ever made, said something that made a lightbulb go on in my head. He said, “I have seen the very best of the Elvis impersonators, and there’s one thing they can’t do – something new.” That answered the question.
Q: Did you confer with Ace Atkins, who was already writing the “Spenser” series?
A: Ace was very helpful, and he has a much harder job than I have. (Parker) wrote 40 “Spenser” books, so Ace can’t get anything wrong about Spenser’s past or the city of Boston, and he has no leeway with Spenser’s (first-person) voice. My books take place in a make-believe town, so I have a lot of room to operate. It allows the fans to give me a break.
Q: Do you envision Tom Selleck when you write Jesse?
A: I don’t think of Jesse that way, but Bob did. A close friend of his told me that Bob got really choked up the first time he saw Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone because he thought, “That’s my character.”
Q: Let’s say that Jesse Stone and Spenser meet for dinner. What happens?
A: Spenser orders, because he knows everything about everything.
Q: What’s the next Jesse novel?
A: “Debt To Pay” will be out (September 2016). It features the return of Mr. Peepers (the psychotic assassin) from “Blind Spot” (Coleman’s first Jesse Stone novel). His wounds have healed and now it’s time for payback.
Q: You’ve also started a new P.I. series, debuting with “Where It Hurts” in January.
A: Putnam wanted me to do something of my own. Gus Murphy is a retired cop whose son dies suddenly. The family is blown apart. Two years later, he’s still lost. Then he catches a murder case and comes out the other side of his grief. I’m on page 112 of the sequel. It’s good to be busy.