September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Robert B. Parker, the strapping, 67-year-old author of the Spenser crime series, is fretting about lip liner. ”Do you still use lipstick with [it]?” he muses, settling into a chair in his airy Cambridge, Mass., home. ”Or rouge? What do you spray on your hair before you go out?”

No, his famous manly protagonist (on which Robert Urich’s Spenser: For Hire TV character was based) isn’t going drag. But Parker had to do a bit of digging to get under the skin of his latest creation, a beautiful female private eye named Sunny Randall. What’s more, his foray into the intricacies of the fairer sex was commissioned by Helen Hunt.

The actress met Parker in early 1998 and proposed a deal: If he wrote a series featuring a tough yet feminine detective, Hunt would star in the film version, possibly parlaying it into a franchise.

”I fell in love with his writing,” says Hunt. ”[Sony CEO] John Calley and I thought, Wouldn’t it be fun to find a Parker-like writer who could create a series of books which we could then make into movies … Then we said, Let’s hear a no from Parker first before we try to find an imitation.”

”Helen turned out to be a fan,” Parker explains. ”Not being an idiot, I said sure.”

The result is Family Honor, a breezy thriller that pits a petite blond PI against shadowy mobster bruisers and a shady suburban couple. Accompanied by her mini bull terrier and gun-toting gay sidekick, Randall tries to stay a step ahead of the underworld heavies.

Though Hunt relishes the prospect of playing a serialized role based on Sunny (”The idea of creating a character that you revisit every few years throughout a lifetime is an actor’s dream,” she gushes), Parker’s a bit more pragmatic about his latest brush with Hollywood. ”What propels me? Greed, it’s definitely greed,” he chuckles. ”I want the money.”

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