Remembering Robert B. Parker: Why I Love Susan Silverman (and Spenser too)

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 20 2010 1:47 PM

Remembering Robert B. Parker: Why I Love Susan Silverman (and Spenser too)

Robert B. Parker, who diedyesterday at 77, wrote his Spenser detective series in two speeds. Fast forthe action sequences and for his friendship with Hawk, the bald, black hit manwho never fails him. Slow for Spenser’s food, his clothing, and his love forSusan Silverman. It’s Hawk and Susan that I kept coming back for when Idevoured two dozen of these novels in high school and afterward. Spenser’srelationship with Hawk let me peer into a kind of brotherhood that I didn’tknow anything about firsthand, as one of four sisters. (We all must have feltthat way, since we read these books out loud in the car on long trips.) And hislong, intimate, sustaining relationship with Susan? It was a model for thecompanionate marriage we onDoubleX and many others have spent so much time examining recently. Never mind that they never actuallygot married.

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Here is how Spenser introduced Susan in 1976: "SusanSilverman wasn't beautiful, but there was a tangibility about her... It washard to tell her age but there was a sense about her of intelligent maturitywhich put her on my side of thirty." The teenage me already knew that whenyou get to the other side of 30, that’s what you aim for. A dozen years laterin book years, Susan left Spenser for a while for a new job (she got apsychology Ph.d. at Harvard). He found another woman for a time. A bit oflonely bitterness crept into the series, but not enough to throw off the rhythmof these books, which are plotted as well as anything I’ve read by Scott Turowor Tony Hillerman.

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Eventually, Spenser has to rescue Susan. This occurs in theonly book in the series that I remembered the title of when I heard that Parkerdied: A Catskill Eagle . It came out in 1985. It threw me. Susan hadbecome helpless, cold, selfish, no fun. I hardly knew her. I got mad andstopped reading Spenser books for a while. It soured me on the TV show, too(though the castingof Hawk was masterful).

Every profile of Parker points out that he himself is thebasis for Spenser (except Parker was shorter) and his wife Joan is Susan. Idon’t know what fissure opened up between the real couple in the mid 1980s, butit 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 overthe years but considering the man lived with his characters through 37 books, it’sremarkable that his affection for them persisted undiminished.

Louis B. Park of the HoustonChronicle (who I trust because he hated ACatskill 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 tomention constant mooning over her) and those who wish she would fall out awindow." I’m clearly in the first camp. I guess you can read the Spenser novelsand skip the slow Susan bits without missing much of the plot. But it’sSpenser’s loyalty to Susan that explains why he’s the private eye you’d mostwant to hire.

(Cross posted on DoubleX .) 

Emily Bazelon was a Slate senior editor from 2005 to 2014. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.

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