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The beloved Spenser series of private eye novels originated in 1973 with The Godwulf Manuscript. Parker wrote 40 entries in the series until his death in 2010. His last Spenser was Sixkill, published posthumously, and an unfinished manuscript entitled Silent Night, later completed by literary agent Helen Brann in 2013.
Spenser is often cited as Parker's take on the Southern California private eyes of the 1930s and 40s, modernized for the 70s audience and positioned in Boston. The series is hardboiled, with an intense, fast-moving pace that eventually caught the eye of the television lens in 1985. ABC's Spenser: For Hire starred Robert Ulrich as the Boston gumshoe, and gained some footing with audiences for three seasons, 66 episodes and four films for Lifetime. Joe Mantegna would later capture the role for three television movies on the A&E network. Parker once described the impact of the television show on his work as “no more effect on my writing than Monday Night Football.” (TV Guide June 20, 1987)
Very little is revealed in terms of Spenser's backstory. In this debut novel, we learn that he was a former cop who was fired for insubordination. The first name is never revealed for the length of the series, but questions about the last name are quickly erased as Spenser introduces himself to a college dean; “It's with an S, not a C. Like the English poet, S-p-e-n-s-e-r.” There's mention of an estranged lover and that he was in the military in Korea. His office is in Boston, he drives a rag-top convertible, works out, has a penchant for cooking and loves beer. You now know just as much as the next Spenser fan.
The first assignment has Spenser hired by a Boston university to locate stolen property referred to as The Godwulf Manuscript. The culprit is suspected as SCACE, a far-left fringe group just looking for a cause in the form of the Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation. Spenser gets a lead on a young student named Terry Orchard, who is later found drugged with a smoking gun beside her dead boyfriend. The Boston PD, who really hate Spenser, finger Orchard for the crime but Spenser has reason to believe that the person who stole the manuscript is behind the murder. The investigation leads our main character through the bowels of the university, from a drug dealing professor to a local mobster, while carefully traipsing through the posh neighborhoods of Boston tracking Orchard's family and friends.
This is a speed-read at 180 pages, high on action and intensity, fueled by Parker's remarkable writing style. The author writes Spenser in the first person, but the truly incredible part of his technique is relaying to the reader everything Spenser sees in these characters and places. It's almost a left to right visualization that easily placed me in the sticky gumshoes of this captivating man named Spenser. The masters can do this well and Parker proves he's easily in that elite company.
Further, Spenser's witty and sarcastic dialogue is priceless. Whenever he faces stiff superiors (although he boldly dismisses any hierarchy), he throws out delightful one-liners like, “Can I feel your muscle?” or his own profession's ridicule like, “The ones with phones are in the yellow pages under SLEUTH”. In some ways I can't help but think Spenser had an impact on Max Allan Collins' creation of the equally sarcastic Quarry or maybe how X-Files creator Chris Carter developed FBI agent Fox Mulder (who, in his own right, had some great dialogue with superiors).
Based on my limited experience of reading just this one lone Spenser novel, I could foresee easily reading 10-12 of these in quick succession over a short period of time. I have 40ish novels to enjoy, so I'm going to pace myself. The Godwulf Manuscript is one of the best of the best.
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