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Parker Explores The Shadows Of Boston's Back Bay

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

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.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.