Robert B. Parker authored a whopping 40 installments of his Spenser series of private-eye novels. The series was adapted for television in 1985 and consisted of 66 total episodes starring Robert Ulrich as the satirical Boston detective. In 1999, Joe Mantegna played the character in three made-for-television films. In 2020, Netflix released a film version entitled Spenser Confidential. It was based loosely on the 2010 novel written by Ace Atkins, an author that Parker's estate hired to continue the Spenser series. The character was portrayed by Mark Wahlberg, a baffling choice largely panned by critics. After enjoying the series debut, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), and its follow-up God Save the Child (1974), I just knew that the series third installment, Mortal Stakes (1975), would be another fantastic entry.
In Mortal Stakes, the general manager of a fictional Boston Red Sox team, Erskine, hires Spenser to investigate their star pitcher Marty Rabb. Erskine feels that Rabb has been on the take to purposefully lose games. Erskine requests that Spenser go undercover as a sportswriter to investigate Rabb's possible gambling scheme. Once Spenser accepts and spends a few days spectating in the dugout and press box, a ruthless shylock named Doerr warns Spenser to back out of the job. Thankfully, the threat just encourages Spenser to dig deeper.
The investigation leads Spenser into rural Illinois where he discovers Rabb's wife isn't who she claims to be. The two may not even be married. Further, all evidence suggests that Rabb's wife was a former prostitute and performed in an adult movie. After digging up the dirt in Illinois, Spenser dives headfirst into the prostitution racket in New York City while contending with an unlikely enemy – a Red Sox radio announcer named Maynard. How Rabb, his wife, Maynard and Doerr are connected is that paperback’s central story. Like the previous installments, the author counters the suspense and tension with Spenser's condescending, satirical quips. In a lot of ways, Spenser is a far superior improvement to Richard Prather's iconic Shell Scott. Spenser is a smooth, real cool jock whereas Shel Scott is a chuckle-headed, unbelievable farce. Both are enjoyable.
In many ways, Mortal Stakes turns a corner in the series. By the end of this novel, Spenser has become a changed man. More violent, less calm. His patience is replaced with anger. While always fueled to fight, the book's fiery finale thumbs the Zippo and throws it into the fumes. Spenser's violent actions are matched only by his own weighty guilt, a balance that's emotionally sparked during a counseling session with love interest Susan Silverman.
I think the more abrasive evolution is effectively captured in one of the book's scenes. Spenser routinely packs his .38 Special revolver in a shoulder rig. By the book's end, Spenser reaches for a shotgun and rams five shells in. It's this scene that's just as important as the novel's climactic firefight because it illustrates the evolution of the character. In reading these books in order, I'm curious to see if that same stony intensity prevails in future installments. I'm hopeful. Mortal Stakes was a riveting, explosive chapter in this long-running series. Highly recommended.
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