Beyond Spenser: Robert B. Parker’s Later Protagonists

Jun 15, 2019 | 2019 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

Very few of my books are about who stole the Maltese Falcon.
—Robert B. Parker

As an academician, Robert B. Parker could have written literary fiction, criticism, or the great American novel, but lucky for us, he found a niche in crime fiction. His Spenser reinforced the admirable notion that adherence to a moral compass and accountability for one’s actions are essential to living a good life. That principle translated seamlessly when he wrote not only the Spenser novels but also his three other deeply satisfying crime series. What made Spenser such a pleasure to read holds true with his books featuring Sunny Randall, Jesse Stone, Virgil Cole, and Everett Hitch.

mysteryReaders first meet Parker’s Sunny Randall in Family Honor (1999). The Randall series broke new ground for Parker by offering insight into the world of a female private detective who is intellectually and temperamentally quite a different bird from Spenser’s main squeeze, Susan Silverman. Whereas Silverman analyzed and over-thought who Spenser was and how he coped with the daily violence of his profession, Randall’s father is police. Hence, Randall has absorbed the pros and cons of police ethos from an early age. She has the shorthand clues to proper use of force and the ethical foundation of law enforcement further enhanced by her own years on the force. On the personal side, a difficult mother, a competitive sister, and an ex-husband with mob connections further complicate Randall’s background. Intriguingly too, she is a painter taking university art classes, which adds an aesthetic dimension to everything she sees and does. Randall’s character is solid. You will enjoy how she chooses and works her cases in his six novels about her. In addition, while she is as sleuthly capable as Spenser on his best day, she has a thing for shoes.

mystery robert b parkerParker’s first Jesse Stone, Night Passage (1997), is probably more of a known quantity to the public than Family Honor, thanks to Tom Selleck’s memorable portrayal of Stone in nine Jesse Stone television movies. (The movies for Helen Hunt, the actor for whom the character Sunny Randall was created, alas, never came to be.) As is usual with adaptations, the books the movie series is based on are much richer in character detail and plot development than could be explored within the confines of a screenplay. Moreover, as Stone, Selleck’s quiet, unassuming manner backed up by his canny policing skills and threat of force immediately get your attention. He is an injury-retired athlete, who left the LAPD before he could be fired due to his drinking. That said the Stone of the novels may be a more reachable a character than his filmed counterpart. In the books, we have the advantage of reading his thought processes as he reasons his way through his days, playing games with himself about drinking, and suffering the loss of his wife as well as policing the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. While his broken career in baseball, failed marriage, and fondness for alcohol would not exactly be hiring criteria for the police chief of Paradise, he gets the job nonetheless because the town selectmen see him as malleable. What a mistake that was.

westernWesterns are American storytelling par excellence so how could Parker not bring his talents to bear in the format. In Appaloosa (2005), Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch, itinerant lawmen, ride into the town where one sheriff and deputy have been murdered already and local ranch owner Randall Bragg, whose mining cohorts make life and even death miserable for its townspeople, dominates as far as the eye can see. It is a spare world that matches Parker’s prose and reminds the reader of modern western movies like Silverado, Unforgiven, or Tombstone. Readers who love the genre are immediately at home by how things look, feel, and smell in Parker’s west because the values we love are all present and accounted for. What is less accountable are the plot twists and turns as well as deftly penned characters that make Appaloosa such a satisfying read.

In all four series, Parker has a counter-character who balances out his protagonist’s deeply held repugnance for violence, especially for that of organized crime and its many works. For Spenser, Hawk could and did do things Spenser could not live with doing himself. You will find Sunny’s ex-husband Ritchie and his family, as well as Spike, cover the same bases for her. Gino Fish ultimately becomes that character for Jesse Stone. Of Cole and Hitch, Marshall Cole comes much closer to Hawk than Deputy and amanuensis Hitch, the West Point man and intellectual. In the Manichaean battle at the heart of Parker’s novels, Spenser, et al, keep darkness at bay with the help of Demogorgon characters who all adhere to something like Spenser’s ethos, but with more negative bells and whistles than Spenser’s will allow. They are all wild cards, barely checked by the rules we take for granted, which makes them invaluable.

Spenser, Randall, Stone, Cole, Hitch, and all their associates win far more conflicts than they lose, but it is important to note that “The Black Bird” for them is not the stuff dreams are made of. Their dreams are far more obtainable: cooking and eating a great meal, getting the light just right in a painting, savoring that one glass of scotch on the rocks, or a clean and peaceable saloon. We all have our dreams.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book. Looking forward to reading it.

  2. I have always enjoyed Robert B Parker’s books and even when they turned them into the tv show Jesse Stone.


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