Robert Parker, who died yesterday at 77, wrote his Spenser detective series in two speeds. Fast for the action sequences and for his friendship with Hawk, the bald, black hit man who never fails him. Slow for Spenser’s food, his clothing, and his love for Susan Silverman. It’s Hawk and Susan that I kept coming back for when I devoured two dozen of these novels in high school and afterward. Spenser’s relationship with Hawk let me peer into a kind of brotherhood that I didn’t know anything about firsthand, as one of four sisters. (We all must have felt that way, since we read these books out loud in the car on long trips.) And his long, intimate, sustaining relationship with Susan? It was a model for the companionate marriage we on DoubleX and many others have spent so much time examining recently. Never mind that they never actually got married.
Here is how Spenser introduced Susan in 1976: “Susan Silverman wasn’t beautiful, but there was a tangibility about her… It was hard to tell her age but there was a sense about her of intelligent maturity which put her on my side of thirty.” The teenage me already knew that when you get to the other side of 30, that’s what you aim for. A dozen years later in book years, Susan left Spenser for a while for a new job (she got a psychology Ph.D. at Harvard). He found another woman for a time. A bit of lonely bitterness crept into the series, but not enough to throw off the rhythm of these books, which are plotted as well as anything I’ve read by Scott Turow or Tony Hillerman.
Eventually, Spenser has to rescue Susan. This occurs in the only book in the series that I remembered the title of when I heard that Parker died: A Catskill Eagle . It came out in 1985. It threw me. Susan had become helpless, cold, selfish, no fun. I hardly knew her. I got mad and stopped reading Spenser books for a while. It soured me on the TV show, too (though the casting of Hawk was masterful).
Every profile of Parker points out that he himself is the basis for Spenser (except Parker was shorter) and his wife Joan is Susan. I don’t know what fissure opened up between the real couple in the mid 1980s, but it produced what reviewers say is the only bad book in the series. The Parkers’ marriage recovered, and with it the novels. There are a couple of missteps over the years but considering the man lived with his characters through 37 books, it’s remarkable that his affection for them persisted undiminished.
Louis B. Park of the Houston Chronicle (whom I trust because he hated A Catskill Eagle , too) wrote in 2003 that “Spenser readers are pretty much divided into two camps: those who love Susan Silverman and Spenser’s dedication to her (not to mention constant mooning over her) and those who wish she would fall out a window.” I’m clearly in the first camp. I guess you can read the Spenser novels and skip the slow Susan bits without missing much of the plot. But it’s Spenser’s loyalty to Susan that explains why he’s the private eye you’d most want to hire.
(Cross posted on Slate’s culture blog, Brow Beat .)