Robert B. Parker is dead. Long live Robert B. Parker!
When best-selling authors pass away, carrying on their characters is a huge risk. How the family of Spenser’s creator made it work.
DURING THE SECOND HALF of their 53-year marriage, Robert B. Parker and his wife, Joan, settled into an unusual living arrangement. Parker, the creator of the hard-boiled Boston detective Spenser, lived on one floor of their big Cambridge Victorian; Joan, a powerhouse philanthropist, lived on another. The decision seemed odd to some, but to those who knew them well, their thinking was realistic and romantic at once.
The couple had separated shortly after their 25th anniversary and considered divorce. During their two years apart, they came to realize they each needed two things: their own space and each other. Buying the house just outside Harvard Square promised a novel way to get both.
What the Parkers called their second marriage worked well for decades. He got up, enjoyed breakfast and the paper, wrote 10 pages a day, and watched Red Sox games into the night. From her place, she was out the door early to exercise, returned home to read the manuscript pages her husband had left on the stairs, and tirelessly raised money for area nonprofits. Together, they often shared meals, entertained friends, and pursued other endeavors (when a TV interviewer asked Parker whether the couple was "intimate," he replied, "Enough to make you blush".)
So little seemed unusual when, on the morning of January 18, 2010, Joan stopped to check in on her husband. "How are you today?" she asked, finding him at his desk.
"Good, good," he replied. Near a lamp, he displayed his tattered boyhood teddy bear and a portrait of his wife and two adult sons, Daniel, a stage actor, and David, a dancer, teacher, and choreographer.
Joan returned from a yoga class later that morning to find Parker slumped in his chair. She dialed 911 and performed CPR, but it was too late. The 77-year-old, whom many called the dean of American crime fiction, had died of a heart attack.
In the weeks and months that follow the death of a spouse, most people must rouse themselves from their grief and face decisions about everything from stamp collections to brokerage accounts to that old Buick sitting in the garage. But Joan had another question to tackle, one that had perplexed plenty of authors' families before her: Should she hire someone to impersonate her husband?
Robert B. Parker.
Robert B. Parker.
Parker was still under contract for more books, but he had never discussed with his family whether his characters should continue in another author's hands. "He was convinced he'd live to be 100," Joan says today. "So that was not in the scheme of things at all." She is sitting in Parker's first-floor office, which she has changed little. A slim and fashionable 80-year-old, who looks about two decades younger, Joan is surrounded by hard-cover copies of Parker's novels and framed images of the TV programs based on them.
Parker's family and his publisher discussed what to do next. "It's not a decision that you undertake lightly, because he was one of a kind," says Chris Pepe, the editor who worked on 47 of Parker's 71 books. There was little debate. "Spenser was a cash cow,'' Joan told the Globe in 2012. "And we felt that Bob would want to see Spenser live on.''
To cynics, the decision to carry on Parker's novels appeared unseemly or, even worse, an act of literary grave robbing that threatened the author's reputation. But those people didn't know Robert B. Parker, a man who, when asked how his books would be viewed in 50 years, replied: "Don't know, don't care." He was proud of his work, but he mainly saw writing as a means of providing a comfortable life for his family.
And that's exactly what's still happening, three years after Parker's death. In May 2012, the first Spenser book by another writer, Robert B. Parker's Lullaby, debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and stayed there for nearly two months. A second one, Robert B. Parker's Wonderland, was just published. Meanwhile, two other writers continued Parker's cop and Western series and have more on the way. These are impressive accomplishments. With a series of smart and sensitive decisions, the late author's family and publisher are not just churning out Parker books, a difficult task for anyone in this fraught publishing climate, they're also keeping Robert B. Parker's name alive.
FROM THE BOXCAR CHILDREN to Sherlock Holmes, James Bond to Jason Bourne, there are plenty of good arguments for continuing with popular characters after their creators have died. Ian Fleming's Bond books and the several Sean Connery movies he saw made from them were hits. But the value of the Fleming estate ballooned after his 1964 death, with writers and producers adding dozens more novels and films. In the decade after Robert Ludlum's 2001 death, four big-budget Bourne movies appeared, as well as many more novels featuring the spy — more even than Ludlum had written in his three-decade career. These "continuations," as they're called, tend to be particularly prevalent in genres like romance and mystery, where authors' talents arguably lie more in characterization and plotting than in literary style.
Authors who straddle pulp fiction and literature present a tougher challenge. The estate of John D. MacDonald refused many offers to continue his popular and influential Travis McGee series. "It is because I have never seen a really good imitation, be it art, literature, or music, that carries that poignant echo of the original artist," MacDonald's son, Maynard, once explained in a letter. Besides, if a sequel bombed, "it would turn off potential fans as well as outrage the old ones, thus killing the goose that might continue to lay a modest number of golden eggs for the publishers and [our family]."
The threat of a backlash is so great that some estates have gone through considerable trouble to hide their ghostwriters. With Flowers in the Attic and other books, V.C. Andrews created the "children in jeopardy" genre of Gothic horror. On the very day she died in 1986, with an estate valued at about $8 million, her publisher had discussed how to complete a prequel. Andrews's obituary would appear in the papers, but that wouldn't be much of a problem. She wasn't a celebrity in the United States, her agent said, "which made it easier for people to forget she was dead."
Four immensely popular books came out in the years ahead, all bearing only "V.C. Andrews" as a byline, though they were actually written by an obscure horror writer named Andrew Neiderman, who was contractually obligated to keep his involvement a secret. But the fifth book noted that another writer was finishing Andrews's manuscripts, surprising readers. To make matters worse, the IRS soon took the estate to court, alleging it had failed to pay estate taxes on the value of Andrews's name, an asset it claimed was worth $1.2 million. The final valuation was revised down to roughly $700,000, in part because ghostwriting carried significant risk, but the message was the same: Slapping a popular author's name on the cover of a book, even if she didn't write it, could be worth big money.
Robert B. Parker was one of those writers whose work transcends its genre. He revived the private detective novel by giving it a literary quality that made it respectable, says Kathy Phillips, whose Spenser's Mystery Bookshop took its name from Parker's hero. For decades, "a reputable person was never caught dead reading them," Phillips says. "With Parker — and coming out of Boston might have had something to do with it — all of a sudden it was OK to be seen carrying a copy."
Other authors took note. "I often say that, when it comes to detective fiction, ninety percent of writers admit Robert B. Parker was an influence and the other ten percent lie about it," mystery writer Harlan Coben says in an e-mail. In 2002, Parker was named a Grand Master of the Edgar Awards, a distinction he shares with giants of mystery and suspense such as Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock.
Despite his reputation, however, Parker remained unromantic about his day job. He said he was no more likely to suffer writer's block than a plumber was to suffer plumber's block. For years, he encouraged Joan to simply throw away all of his letters, photographs, and manuscripts cluttering their Cambridge basement. She instead donated them to literary archives at Boston University.
Part of Parker's workaday attitude toward his craft came from his upbringing. Born in 1932, he came of age in Springfield during a time when men were taught that it was their responsibility alone to provide for their families. After Joan had their first son, Parker moved through a series of jobs he despised, including technical writing for Raytheon and editing Prudential's house magazine. "He hated everything about it," Joan recalls. "But he had a strong sense of 'I've got to make money — it doesn't matter if I like it or not.' "
Eventually, the couple decided Parker would get his PhD in English literature at BU. Maybe that would give him time to write. "We kept winnowing down those things he liked to do," Joan says. "He said, 'I know I have [writing] skill. And it's the only skill I think I have.' "
In the summer of 1971, after his first year teaching at Northeastern, the 39-year-old Parker sat down to write a novel based on the detective paperbacks he'd loved growing up. After the three-month break was over, he sent the manuscript to Boston's Houghton Mifflin with a simple note: "I hope you like my book." Two weeks later, Parker came home early waving a letter. Houghton was going to publish his book and send him a check for $2,000.
Published in 1973 The Godwulf Manuscript, which introduced Parker's tough-as-nails PI with a poet's soul, sold fewer than 5,000 copies. But those numbers and Parker's advances steadily began to climb. By 1979, he was able to quit teaching. By the mid-'80s, with Robert Urich on television in Spenser for Hire, Parker books could be counted on to sell 200,000 hard-cover copies. According to his longtime agent, he sold well over 15 million books in all.
"Why do I write three novels a year?" Parker liked to joke. "Because I'm married to Joan Parker and have two sons in the arts." So when he was offered a reported $1 million-plus advance to complete an unfinished Raymond Chandler manuscript, he didn't seem to worry much about whether his continuation would tarnish his reputation or that of Philip Marlowe's creator. "He was such a pragmatist that this kind of stuff barely touched him," Joan says. Poodle Springs appeared in 1989 to good sales and good reviews.
However, Parker's second outing as a Chandler stand-in — 1991's Perchance to Dream , an original sequel to The Big Sleep — was less successful. "The Big Snooze" read the headline in the Los Angeles Times. "If Raymond Chandler had written like Robert B. Parker, he wouldn't have been Raymond Chandler. He would have been Robert B. Parker, a rather less exalted presence," novelist Martin Amis wrote in a scathing New York Times review. The Chandler estate didn't authorize another full-length Marlowe novel for more than 20 years.
The decision to continue Parker's characters was made quickly, but the questions of whether another writer could successfully imitate his style and whether his readers would even accept someone trying to remained open. During the V.C. Andrews case, Andrew Neiderman provided a glimpse into the particular difficulties of the ghostwriter's art. "I had to research every single book that V.C. Andrews had written, and I had to go through and study their syntax, vocabulary, phraseology, the concepts," he explained. "In other words, I had to become someone else in the writing process. And that's something."
Parker was a particular challenge, even outside his highly recognizable style of rugged sentences and sardonic wit. He infused his work with material from his own life, starting with putting more than a little of himself into his most famous creation. "He talked like Spenser," horror writer Stephen King says in an e-mail, and "that always fascinated me." Parker told his wife that Spenser's love interest, Susan Silverman, "is my idealized version of you." With two gay sons, he was a mystery writer who early on included gay characters that defied stereotypes. Even his beloved pointer, Pearl the Wonder Dog, began to appear in the books over time.
Ace Atkins has earned praise for his Spenser books.
Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff
Ace Atkins has earned praise for his Spenser books.
It fell to Pepe, Parker's longtime editor at Putnam, to find a suitable author. She made a list of writers at Putnam and elsewhere who might be up to the task and asked them each to submit 50-page writing samples. She then sat down to reread many of Parker's novels.
As the submissions rolled in, some of them turned out to be good, some were terrible, and one instantly stood out. Pepe called Joan: "I think we have our guy," she said.
Ace Atkins, now 42, began devouring Robert B. Parker books in 1991. A star college football player from Alabama, once pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he had been set adrift by the recent death of his father. Then Spenser arrived, Atkins would later write, "in typical Spenser fashion: right when you need him most." Atkins became a writer. After some years as a crime reporter at The Tampa Tribune, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer, he turned his attention to his own series of Southern crime dramas.
Pepe sent Atkins's writing test on for Joan and her sons to read. "We loved it," Joan says. "It was very surreal to read what approximates the voice of Bob, but it really isn't. Yet it's close enough."
In late 2010, Pepe told Atkins the job was his. When she offered to send him a complete collection of the Spenser novels, he said he already had them, most in first editions. Although Pepe would be his safety net, scouring manuscripts for drinks Spenser wouldn't drink, words Spenser wouldn't use, Atkins wouldn't often need the help.
When Lullaby was published in May 2012 — with Atkins's name as the sole byline, albeit printed in smaller type than the Robert B. Parker brand name — the Chicago Sun-Times called the imitation "a minor miracle." Publishers Weekly wrote that "even the most fanatical Parker fans would be hard pressed to identify any aspect of this Spenser novel that doesn't read as if it were penned by Spenser's late creator."
Whatever their initial skepticism, many fans felt that Lullaby captured the grittiness of Parker's classic 1980s works. Some even thought it was better than the books Parker himself had written in his later years. In a rare piece of hate mail, a fan complained that Sixkill sounded nothing like Parker. Atkins had to point out that Parker himself had actually written that one.
Lullaby sold a respectable 41,000 hard-cover copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which accounts for about 75 percent of retail sales. That was about 20,000 fewer copies than Parker's last book, though his publisher says sales were probably comparable when you factor in the dramatic rise of e-books in recent years. (Atkins doesn't discuss the financial arrangements of his contract. "I'm like Spenser," he has said. "I'm a hired gun.")
Not everyone was a fan, of course. Kathy Phillips, the bookstore owner, doesn't like series continuations, which she likens to "turning characters in novels into a literary theme park." Although Atkins writes well, she says, "I cringe when I come across the 'tics' that are obligatory to any Spenser pastiche. . . . You know what they are, mostly the food stuff and the bald quips." Stephen King hasn't read the Atkins books. He generally avoids what he calls "post-mortems," though he didn't always feel this way. Years ago, King approached John D. MacDonald's son with the idea of writing one more Travis McGee book, with the royalties from it going to charity. But Maynard MacDonald turned him down. "[It] pissed me off at the time, but I've come to believe he was right," King explains. "It's not a big cause of mine, or anything; I just think that when the author dies, the books should cease."
Others, though, seem to share Parker's attitude. "I don't really care," says 75-year-old Stuart Woods, who writes three books a year. "If my widow and my agent can get together and find a way to extend the life of the series and provide her with more income, that's fine with me. I'll be wherever I am, looking down on them, raising a glass."
AT HOME IN OXFORD, MISSISSIPPI, Atkins writes at a computer next to which he's affixed a photo of Parker. He's spent a lot of time at his desk lately. He just published his second Spenser novel, a yarn about a Las Vegas kingpin's shady efforts to erect a casino in Revere, called Robert B. Parker's Wonderland. In May, he's publishing another book from his own series called The Broken Places. He's working on his third Spenser, the last on his current contract, as well as a proposed pilot for a new Spenser television show.
Atkins says his work on the Parker books has gotten easier over time. He's received a flood of positive notes and only a few negative ones; a Parker fan even insists on giving him Sox tickets whenever he's in Boston. "If I really paid attention to the criticism it would hurt," Atkins says. "It's easier doing the continuation now because it does seem that the fans have been very pleased with what I'm doing and the way that I'm doing it."
Mostly, it seems, people who spent decades looking forward to the annual ritual of a new Spenser are just glad to have the character live on — and they don't really care who's writing him. "[Fans] wanted somebody to come in and try to do this and not screw up the things that we love so much," Atkins says.
As for Joan Parker, she and her late husband's publisher have forged a path to new success that has only sent more readers back to the originals. Before Parker's death, Putnam released the bulk of his novels in e-book form. As more books with Parker's name on them are published — and displayed in bookstores and promoted on Amazon — new fans can keep themselves awfully busy waiting for the next.
So far, the Parker estate has put out five books across three series, with more on the way. A screenwriter of the Jesse Stone CBS movies, starring Tom Selleck, is carrying on those — another book is due in September — and a third writer is continuing Parker's Cole/Hitch Westerns. Parker wrote three books a year. It's taking three writers to keep up his pace.
Back at her husband's Cambridge desk, Joan doesn't second-guess her decision. She surveys photos of her children and her late husband's dog, a German shorthaired pointer named Pearl. "He loved me, he loved the children, and he loved Pearl the Wonder Dog," she says.
She points to the pictures of the dog, noting that they actually show three different dogs, all named Pearl. "One would die and then he'd get another German shorthaired pointer," she says. "In his mind, he had one Pearl for thirty years." She used to give him a hard time about it. "If I predecease you," she'd say, "you'll find someone my height, my hair color, you'll rename her Joan, and it will be as though I never left."
It would be a little like living on.