Robert B. Parker's Now and Then

No one knows the hard-boiled mystery novel better than Robert B. Parker. In his PhD thesis, The Violent Hero: A Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality, he examined the novels of three pioneers in the genre – Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald. Chandler in particular has been a significant influence on Parker's writing. The Chandler estate asked Parker to complete the unfinished novel, Poodle Springs. He also wrote Perchance to Dream, a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. In a 2005 interview, Parker said that he tried to consciously emulate Chandler when he began writing.

Parker is the author of three mystery series and a number of stand-alone novels. (Visit his website for a current list of novels in each of these series). In a former post, I discussed Sea Change, one of his Jesse Stone mysteries. Parker’s longest-standing and most popular series features the private investigator, Spenser. The 35th novel in this series, Now and Then, is classic Parker.

In her Boston Globe review of the novel, Irene Sege claims that “opening the book is like settling into an evening with an old, if somewhat slowed, friend.” Clearly, there is something compelling about the series characters we get to know. The world of the Spenser novels is a fully realized one, complete with map. We become familiar with the streets, the characters, and the situations.

Now and Then begins innocuously enough with an FBI agent asking Spenser to trail his wife – a woman who, it turns out, is having an extramarital affair. What Spenser discovers is far more surprising than the adultery, a discovery that involves secret identities, terrorism, and multiple murders. Atypical of the detective novel, the mystery does not revolve around the villain’s identity; we can guess that fairly easily. It is the fate of Spenser’s girlfriend that keeps us in suspense. Spenser knows that the enemy will try to use her as bait.

Anyone familiar with hard-boiled detectives will recognize Spenser; he has what Parker identifies as a “knight-errant dimension about him.” A tough guy in a harsh world, Spenser does not dwell on the hazards he must face; he appears nonchalant about these dangers, speaking in a clipped, almost monosyllabic language.

But Parker is not a slavish follower of the hard-boiled tradition. Although Spenser is a former professional boxer, he is well-read one, fond of quoting great literature. And he is not the same loner as his hard-boiled predecessors. Parker, in fact, expands the hard-boiled novel by introducing romance into it.

The Boston setting of the Spenser novels provides a significant contrast to the western metropolises so prominent in the novels of Hammett and Chandler. Although it bears similarities to western cities, Boston evokes literary rather than Hollywood associations.

Parker, Robert B. Now and Then. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2007.