Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay Robert B. Parker doesn't romanticize the city that is home to his fictional private eye, Spenser. "If I lived in Cincinnati, Spenser would be working in Cincinnati," says the author.
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Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay

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Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay

Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay

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Robert B. Parker doesn't like to embellish the truth , so when he talks about Boston, he doesn't romanticize the city where Spenser, his fictional private eye, solves crimes. Parker says Boston is the backdrop for his Spenser books because it's the city he knows best.

To begin our series, Crime in the City, NPR's Lynn Neary spent some time with the crime-writer in his hometown.

LYNN NEARY: Robert B. Parker's Spenser is not your typical private eye. Well sure, he's tough, an ex-cop and a boxer who's no stranger to violence, and he can deliver a stinging one-liner with the best of them, but 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.

They've been through a lot, even separated for a while, and though they don't live together, they are committed to each other. So it's not surprising to learn that Robert B. Parker's Boston begins at home, with his wife, Joan.

ROBERT B: Oh, there she is, the girl of my dreams.

NEARY: The Parkers have been together for a long time.

JOAN PARKER: A long, long, long, long time, 58 years. We've been married 52.

NEARY: The Parkers have spent their entire married life in the Boston area. Their current home is a beautiful Victorian on a pretty street in Cambridge, just across the river from Boston.

They moved here in the '80s after a brief separation. They realized they still wanted to be together but with a slightly different living arrangement.

PARKER: Which is simply to say that I have my space, and Bob has his space. Actually, Bob has a bedroom and an office, and I consider the whole rest of the house mine.

NEARY: The arrangement seems to suit them, and certainly for Robert Parker, it's been better than living without his wife. He believes he could live in and write about any city, as long as she is there.

PARKER: There's a conceit that place matters more, I think, to a writer than it does. I think if Raymond Chandler had lived in Chicago, Marlowe would still be Marlowe, and I think if I lived in Cincinnati, and Spenser would then be working in Cincinnati, he'd probably still be Spenser because I'd probably still be me because what makes me has more to do with her, who I assume would be living with me in Cincinnati.

PARKER: Not so much.

PARKER: We won't put it to the test.

NEARY: All that's not to say that Robert Parker doesn't like Boston, because he does, and he has a Bostonian's healthy sense of humor about living in Cambridge, in the shadow of Harvard University.

Parker likes to joke that Cambridge is located across the river from Boston to provide the city with comic relief, and driving around Harvard Square, he takes delight in pointing out some of his neighbors' eccentricities.

PARKER: A doggie with a backpack. That is - how Cambridge is that?


NEARY: What is Spenser's take on Harvard, Cambridge?

PARKER: He makes fun of it. There's a shock.


NEARY: Spenser spends some time in Cambridge because that's where Susan lives, but Spenser's home is across the river, in Boston's Back Bay neighborhood.

PARKER: Do you want to see Spenser's abode?

NEARY: Yeah. The townhouse where Spenser lives 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: This building on the right with the spires, that's where Spenser's office is.

NEARY: What is the office like?

PARKER: A desk in the bay window there where he sits, with his back to the window, file cabinet, a big couch for necking with Susan and for Pearl to sleep on when she visits.

NEARY: So does the Boston that Spenser lives in and works in in that office, is it the same Boston that we're driving through now, or is it a Boston of your imagination?

PARKER: Both. It is the Boston we are driving through now filtered through my imagination and the needs of my book. I don't lie, but I sometimes invent places that aren't there. You know, if I want him to have a terrible meal at a restaurant for some reason, I don't use a real restaurant, because why, you know, badmouth somebody?

NEARY: But if he's going to have a good meal?

PARKER: When he has a good meal, it's at a real place.

NEARY: And what better place than the Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel.


NEARY: Just a block from Spenser's office, the Bristol Lounge is one of Spenser's, and Parker's, favorites. The book "Sudden Mischief" opens in the Bristol Lounge with Susan and Spenser listening to the pianist play "Green Dolphin Street," and sometimes Spenser likes to sit at the bar with his pal, Hawk, nursing a scotch.

Spenser, says Parker, knows how to live life well.

PARKER: Anything Spenser undertakes, he's reasonably thorough and competent at. So if he's going to eat, he tries to eat well. If he's going to have a drink, he tries to drink something good. If he's going to date a woman, it may as well be Susan.

NEARY: 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.

PARKER: Swan boats have been doing this for, I don't know, 1840 or something like that, a long time.

NEARY: We take a seat on one of the benches that line the pond and watch as the swan boats float quietly by.

PARKER: They sit here a lot, Spenser and whoever, on the bench and discuss stuff. That little bridge is an excellent place for meeting bad guys and things. A lot of stuff happens on that bridge, partly because its open, and you can see from both sides, and no ambushes are possible, and all the things you'd worry about if you were a bad guy.

NEARY: But you know, sitting here, it just seems so idyllic, it's hard to imagine that bad things would be going on here.

PARKER: One of the aspects of Renaissance painting was that they would always death in the picture. You'd paint some landscape, and death would be in a corner there, and I think that the more idyllic and pastoral the environment, the more the nonpastoral, nonidyllic stands out. So I like the contrast sometimes. But no it's - bad things don't happen here much, except in my books.

NEARY: 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 what is most important to Parker. Lynn Neary, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can read lines like he turned and gave me the hard eye on our Web site, That's an excerpt from Robert B. Parker's book, "Now and Then." This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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