Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay

Morning Edition resumes its Crime in the City series.

Robert B. Parker

Robert B. Parker shares his hometown of Boston with Spenser, his tough, fictional private eye. John Earle hide caption

itoggle caption John Earle
Boston

"Bad things don't happen here much, except in my books," Parker says of Boston's idyllic Public Garden. hide caption

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Author Robert B. Parker is a matter-of-fact guy who doesn't like to embellish the truth or make something out of nothing. So when he talks about Boston, the city that is the setting for his popular novels about the private eye, Spenser, he doesn't romanticize it.

"There's a conceit that place matters more, I think, to a writer than it does," Parker says. "If Raymond Chandler had lived in Chicago, Marlowe would still be Marlowe. And I think if I lived in Cincinnati, Spenser would be working in Cincinnati."

It just so happens that Boston is the city Parker knows best — he and his wife of 52 years live in a beautiful Victorian on a picturesque street in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston. They've lived in the area for their entire married life.

And so Boston is also the city that Parker's famed character calls home. Spenser is not your typical private eye. Although he's tough — an ex-cop and a boxer who's no stranger to violence and who can deliver a stinging one-liner with the best of them — he's no brooding loner with something to hide.

Spenser enjoys life. He likes good food and wine. He's got a dog named Pearl and a sidekick named Hawk. And the thing that really sets him apart from other fictional detectives is his long-term relationship with Susan Silverman, a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard.

Spenser spends some time in Cambridge because that's where Susan lives, but his home is in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood, in a town house that really does exist. It's a four-story brownstone on Marlborough Street, just around the corner from Boston's Public Garden, one of the city's biggest tourist attractions. A short distance away is the office building where Spenser works. Parker says the office has "a big couch for necking with Susan, and for Pearl to sleep on when she visits."

Parker says the fictional Boston that Spenser lives and works in is the actual city "filtered through my imagination and the needs of my book." He mixes real sites in the city with places he invents.

"If I want him to have a terrible meal at a restaurant, for some reason," Parker explains, "I don't use a real restaurant, because why badmouth somebody?"

But if Spenser's going to have a good meal, it's at a place like the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel. Just a block from Spenser's office, the Bristol is one of Spenser's — and Parker's — favorites. The book Sudden Mischief opens with Susan and Spenser listening to the pianist play "Green Dolphin Street" there. And sometimes Spenser likes to sit at the bar with his pal, Hawk, nursing a scotch.

Parker makes no apologies for placing his character in one of Boston's upscale neighborhoods. He's not especially interested in exploring the dark side or the gritty streets of his city. If he were a private eye, Parker says, he'd also have his office in Back Bay, in close proximity to the Public Garden, where Boston's famous swan boats glide across a small pond.

Sitting on one of the benches that line the pond, Parker points out locales that have been in the Spenser novels: "That little bridge is an excellent place for meeting bad guys ... partly because its open, and you can see from both sides. No ambushes are possible, all the things you'd worry about if you were a bad guy."

Parker's use of the idyllic Public Garden as the setting of shady dealings reminds him of a Renaissance painting trick.

"They always put death in the picture," he says. "You'd paint a landscape, and death would be in a corner there. I think that the more idyllic and pastoral the environment, the more the nonpastoral, nonidyllic stands out. So I like the contrast sometimes. Bad things don't happen here much, except in my books."

Parker remains convinced that he could have placed Spenser in any city. But at this point, Spenser will never leave Boston, because Parker will never leave. Boston is home, and home is most important to Parker.

Excerpt: 'Now & Then'

'Now and Then'
Now and Then
By Robert Parker
Hardcover, 304 pages
Putnam
List Price: $25.95

From Chapter 1

He came into my office carrying a thin briefcase under his left arm. He was wearing a dark suit and a white shirt with a red-and-blue striped tie. His red hair was cut very short. He had a thin, sharp face. He closed the door carefully behind him and turned and gave me the hard eye.

"You Spenser?" he said.

"And proud of it," I said.

He looked at me aggressively and didn't say anything. I smiled pleasantly.

"Are you being a wise guy?" he said.

"Only for a second," I said. "What can I do for you?"

"I don't like this," he said.

"Well," I said. "It's a start."

"I don't like funny either," he said.

"Then we should do great," I said.

"My name is Dennis Doherty," he said.

"I love alliteration," I said.

"What?"

"There I go again," I said.

"Listen, pal. You don't want my business, just say so."

"I don't want your business," I said.

"Okay," he said.

He stood and walked toward my door. He opened it and stopped and turned around.

"I came on a little strong," he said.

"I noticed that," I said.

"Lemme start over," Doherty said.

I nodded.

"Try not to frighten me," I said.

He closed the door and came back and sat in one of the chairs in front of my desk. He looked at me for a time. No aggression. Just taking notice.

"You ever box?" he said.

I nodded.

"The nose?" I said.

"More around the eyes," Doherty said.

"Observant," I said.

"The nose has been broken," Doherty said. "I can see that. But it's not flattened."

"I retired before it got flat," I said.

Doherty nodded. He looked at the large picture of Susan on my desk.

"You married?" he said.

"Not quite," I said.

"Ever been married?"

"Not exactly," I said.

"Who's in the picture?" he said.

"Girl of my dreams," I said.

"You together?" Doherty said.

"Yes."

"But not married," he said.

"No."

"Been together long?" he said.

"Yes."

We were quiet.

"You having trouble with your wife?" I said after a time.

He glanced at the wedding ring on his left hand. Then he looked back at me and didn't answer.

"The only person you could ever talk with is your wife," I said, "and she's the issue, so you can't talk to her."

He kept looking at me and then slowly nodded.

"You know," he said.

"I do."

"You've been through it."

"I've been through something," I said.

He looked at Susan's picture.

"With her?" he said.

"Yes."

"You're still together."

"Yes."

"And you're all right?" Doherty said.

"Very."

With his elbows on the arms of the chair, he clasped his hands and rested his chin on them.

"So it's possible," he said.

"Never over till it's over," I said.

"Yeah," he said.

I waited. He sat. Then he opened the thin briefcase and took out an 8-by-10 photograph. He put the photograph in front of me on the desk.

"Jordan Richmond," he said.

"Your wife."

"Yes," Doherty said. "She kept her name. She's a professor."

"Ah," I said, as if he had explained something.

I try to be encouraging.

"I think she thought it was low class," he said. "To have a name like Doherty."

"Too ethnic," I said.

"Too Irish," he said.

"Even worse," I said.

"I don't mean she's snobby," Doherty said. "She isn't. She just grew up different than I did. Private school, Smith College."

"Kids?" I said.

"No."

"Where do I come in?" I said.

He took in a big breath of air.

"I want you to find out what she's up to," he said.

"What do you think she's up to?" I said.

"I don't know. She's out late a lot. Sometimes when she comes home I can tell she's been drinking."

"Oh," I said. "That."

"That?"

"You think she's fooling around," I said.

"I don't think she'd do that to me," he said.

"Maybe it's not about you," I said.

"What?"

I shook my head.

"So what do you think?" I said.

"I don't know what to think, it's just not going well. She's out too much. She's sort of brusque when she's home. I don't know. I want you to find out."

There were a few questions I wanted to ask, but they were more shrink-type questions. And he wasn't hiring me for my shrink skills.

"Okay," I said.

"What do you charge?"

I told him. He nodded.

"And you'll find out?" he said.

"Yes."

"I don't want her to know," Doherty said.

"I'm pretty slick," I said. "Where do you live?"

"No need to know that," he said. "You can pick her up at school."

"And tail her home," I said.

He nodded.

"Of course," he said. "Six thirty-six Brant Island Road in Milton."

I looked at the picture.

"Good likeness of her?" I said.

"Yes," he said. "She's 51, looks younger. Five feet, seven inches, a hundred and thirty pounds. She's in good shape. Works out. Drives a silver Honda Prelude. Mass plate number ARP7 JD5."

He reached into the slim briefcase again and brought out a printed sheet of paper. He put it on the desk beside her photograph.

"Her teaching schedule," he said. "Concord College, you know where it is?"

"I do."

"Her office is in Foss Hall," Doherty said. "English department. It's on the schedule."

"How about you," I said. "How do I reach you?"

"I'll give you my cell phone," he said.

I wrote it down.

"Where do you work?" I said.

"You don't need to know that," he said. "Cell phone will get me."

I didn't press it.

"You want regular reports?"

"No. When you know something, tell me."

"If she's doing anything out of the ordinary," I said, "it shouldn't take long to catch her."

He nodded.

"I don't think she's having an affair," he said.

"Sure," I said.

"When can you start?"

"I'm away for a couple of days," I said. "I'll start Tuesday."

He didn't move. I waited.

"She's not . . ." he said finally. "I can't see her having an affair . . . she's not that interested in sex."

"I'll let you know," I said.

He nodded and turned and headed for the door. The way his jacket fell, he might have been carrying a gun behind his right hip.

Chapter 2

It was late september on Cape Cod, and the summer people were gone. Susan and I liked to go down for a couple of nights in the off-season, before things shut down for the winter. Which is how we ended up on a Sunday night, eating cold plum soup and broiled Cape scallops, and drinking a bottle of Gewürztraminer at Chillingsworth in Brewster.

"When someone says that their mate is not interested in sex," Susan said, "all they can really speak to with authority is that their mate is not interested in sex with them."

"I've never made that statement," I said.

"And with good reason," Susan said.

"It sounds like sex to me," I said.

"And it sounds like he fears that it is," Susan said.

"He fears something," I said.

"And he's reticent about himself," she said. "Didn't want to tell you where he lived. Won't tell you where he works."

"Lot of people are embarrassed about things like this," I said.

"Are you?" she said.

"No more than you are, shrink girl."

She smiled and sipped her wine.

She said, "We both uncover secrets, I guess."

"And chase after hidden truths," I said.

"And people are often better for it," she said.

"But not always."

"No," she said. "Not always."

We ate our plum soup happily and sipped our wine.

"You don't like divorce cases, do you?" she said.

"Make me feel like a Peeping Tom," I said.

Susan smiled, which is a luminous sight.

"Is that different than a private eye?" she said.

"I hope so," I said.

"You feel intrepid, chasing bad guys," Susan said.

"Yes."

"And sleazy, chasing errant mates."

"Yes."

"But you do it," she said.

"It's work."

"It's good work," Susan said. "The pain of emotional loss is intense."

"I recall," I said.

"Yes," she said. "We both do. Half my practice comes from people like that."

"Despite similarities, our practices are not identical."

"Mine requires less muscle," she said. "But the point is, you can rescue people in different ways. Leaping tall buildings at a single bound is not the only way."

"I know," I said.

"Which is why you'll work divorce cases," she said, "even though they make you feel sleazy."

"Heroism has its downside," I said.

"It has its upside too," Susan said.

Susan's eyes had a small glitter.

"Speaking of which . . ." I said.

"Could we maybe finish dinner?" she said.

"Of course," I said. "The upside is patient."

"And frequent," Susan said.

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