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Doing lunch with a man of mysteries

Sunday, April 04, 1999

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

Celebrity scoping is not usually my style. I'm no groupie, but lunching with two Bobs on Tuesday was about as close as I get to gaga.

One of the Big Bs was my husband, Ace, and the other was the object of our mutual reading affection - detective novelist Robert Parker. We walked over to eat at Bravo Franco with Parker, who flew in from Cambridge, Mass., to appear for Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont..

Having lunch with my husband is about as rare as encountering a Cleveland Browns lover in Pittsburgh, but Parker is about as good as it gets as a draw. We like him so much, in fact, that sometimes we've even bought his books in hard-cover.

Robert Parker, author of the Spencer detective novels, has lunch at Bravo Franco. Parker spoke to a crowd of 200 at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont on Tuesday night. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette) 

Parker, 66, is the author of the Spenser novels, his most recent "Hush Money," which I read over the weekend, alternating recipe tests from the Duquesne Club's new cookbook with chapters of his fast-moving book with the pink hog on the cover. What makes a woman like me a fan? The snappy repartee between Spenser and his ladylove, psychiatrist Susan Silverman, and his astute black friend and right-hand shooter, Hawk. There's also Pearl the Wonder Dog, the German Shorthair Pointer pictured on the book jacket, though Parker explains this is actually Pearl II. Pearl I lived 16 years. and her successor is 12.

In the novels, Pearl gets food right off the table and she sleeps on the couch, Susan's good couch. We'renot the onlye ones who have a naughty dog. E>

I like characters who eat. Spenser does the cooking.

Which is how it happens that the food editor is lunching with the detective writer. His novels aren't to be confused, though, with culinary mysteries, where recipes are interspersed like so many clues. (I enjoy those, too.) Spenser doesn't use recipes. He just looks in the fridge and comes up with something mouth-watering. I have a sneaking suspicion that that's how a lot of men cook, and I, recipe-dependent that I am, admire serendipity in either sex.

Speaking of sex, there's a lot of it in Parker's books. Or at least alluring talk about it, conversation in favor of it, tasteful descriptions of what may happen or just did. Sometimes the Chinese food that Susan has delivered gets cold.

Susan does not cook well - and she just sips and nibbles, which is I admire because it's probably how she keeps her svelte figure. (I've never nibbled in my life).

On the walk to lunch, Ace asks Parker (I just can't call the former English professor "Bob") if he's known a lot of cops. Never knew any until his first novel in 1974. But Parker's guy talk has the ring of truth because he served in the Korean War and hehangs around gyms lifting weights, which might contribute to his 250-pound bulk, although I can look right into his blue eyes. "Spenser's taller than me," he says.

Compared to Parker, Spenser drinks more, too. Sockless, tieless Parker, whose blue shirt matches his eyes, orders no salad. No dessert, either. Just bread and peppers. He orders only San Pellegrino, then says with a wry smile, "I'm the kind of two-fisted drinking man that Pittsburgh loves."

"It's funny how you keep giving up things," he says, tucking into the stuffed peppers recommended by my hair stylist, but kind of hot for Parker's taste. "I gave up smoking 30 years ago, and I don't drink anymore."

He answers the unasked question: "No, I'm not a recovering alcoholic," but he thought his heart might be better off.

Parker can be forthcoming, because he never reads anything written about him, good or bad. "My wife reads them, though, because we need to keep track."

He's been married to wife Joan for 43 years, though they were separated for two years, and each now inhabits separate floors of the same house, a happy arrangement by his account.

"We're so different. She likes to eat late; I like to eat early. She wants to watch movies; I like to watch ball games. She's social and likes to go out; I don't like to go anywhere." (On book tours, however, he lunches with whom he's told, not that I think Ace and I are lacking in charm.).

And Joan's refrigerator? "Two bottles of Diet Ginger Ale and a yogurt."

Where do the Parkers leave off and Spenser and Susan begin? Is Pearl spoiled? "Pearl sleeps under the covers with me," Parker told the crowd of 200 in Oakmont on Tuesday.

Joan Parker is not Susan Silverman, and yet she is. "She's not Jewish and she's not a psychiatrist. (She's retired from the state Department of Education.) Both women run the stairs at Harvard stadium, though neither will probably acquire flabby thighs, despite a fan's plea Tuesday night.

Susan is childless, but the Parkers have two sons, Daniel T. Parker, an actor, and David, a choreographer. Parker notices Heinz Hall right away because they'd once visited Pittsburgh, in part to see David's modern dance show there. "Now he's in Belgium, and I'm in Pittsburgh. I like Pittsburgh better than Belgium."

The actor son will appear in "Small Vices," a July 11 A&E cable movie with Joe Mantegna as Spenser and the author in a bit part as a CIA agent. He's leaning against a car. "I told them I can't hit my marks and say my lines at the same time," he says.

Alleged tough guy Parker has difficulty hiding his excitement about the Spenser-like character named Sunny Randall that he's created for Helen Hunt in a book called "Family Honor."

But we came to talk about food. Parker says his mother was the kind of Irish cook who asked, "How would you like your steak boiled?" His Wasp father had the talent to take up the task "without her knowing it," Parker says, as in, "Shall I just check on that Thanksgiving turkey, Dear?"

Parker says his six-month stint as a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine didn't sit well. "I know the difference between good food and bad food - I like them both. I never dine. I eat."

And always he's "typing." He arises when Pearl awakens him about 8 o'clock and is in his home office by 9:30. He writes five pages a day. He writes two novels a year - Spenser alternating with a newer character named Jesse Stone. He's written 30-some novels and says he'll keep writing as long as somebody wants to pay him to do it.

"Better than working," he says. He's joking, or is he?

He claims his friend Elmore Leonard says if you take more than six months for a novel, you're not working. The one Parker invested the most time in - a Spenser-less Irish family novel called "All Our Yesterdays" that took two years - is his favorite. It got good reviews, but, he jokes to the Oakmont crowd, "Lines formed around the block not to buy that book."He doesn't outline, and he may not know how the book will end. He agrees with Ace's and my assessment that his books are relationship-driven because "I'm a lousy plotter." Interestingly, he thinks his take on romance is what has made him a "cult figure" in Japan, where he once autographed 400 books in an hour. The Japanese seem fascinated with the egalitarian, non-traditional relationship between Spenser and Susan, and seeing a tough, independent guy who cooks.

"People would show me a picture of their baby - Spenser Yamaguchi."

Ace asks him if he has season tickets to the Boston Red Sox. He hems and haws, then says he'd really rather watch them on TV. I think, Maybe it's his recent knee surgery, then the real reason slips: "People recognize me, so I don't like to go."

His humor launches a thousand sympathetic fans: "In real life, no one has more reason to be self deprecating."

As well as reading his most recent book, I also listened to "Double Deuce," a book on tape. As luck would have it, the man who says he never reads a review - "If I did, maybe I'd start worrying about what people think of me" - says that book evoked what he calls "my best review." The book's features Spenser and Hawk's conflict with a gang in a housing project called Double Deuce. Parker got the "review" at a book signing in Los Angeles. The streetwise South Central L.A. "critic" approached Parker, the book under his arm. He had a succint comment about the Hawk character :H92%T-5> "You really nailed" him.

He liked it.

And so do we. Any day now, Spenser/Parker'll probably have us over and cook us lunch. Forget the recipes. This time, we'll clean up.

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