The letter “S” appears twice in the name of Robert B. Parker’s private investigator from Boston. Obviously, the word “Spenser” begins with an “S” but the other one is in the middle where most folks put in a “C.” That pretty much says it all for a man created in 1973 and is still going today. He’s just like you and me, yet slightly different.
Boston PI Spenser is the direct heir to the triumvirate of Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald. Not surprisingly, Spenser’s creator wrote a PhD dissertation on those three authors and Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) takes off where the American trio leave off (or, in MacDonald’s case, was still going in 1973). Having read at least one novel by each of these three authors, I immediately felt at home with Spenser as a character and with Parker’s style. Heck the first line of the book gets you in that particular mood you need to be when you follow Spade, Marlowe, or Archer around on their cases.
The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse.Have to admit I laughed out loud in the car as I listened to the audio. (Interesting note: the same man who reads The Godwulf Manuscript, Michael Pritchard, also read MacDonald’s The Moving Target. My take on that book here.)
Spenser is hired by a university president, Bradford Forbes, to locate the Godwulf manuscript, a 14th century tome stolen from the university library. The ransom note is odd, instructing the university to donate the ransom money to a charity. Spenser’s skeptical about the job but takes it anyway. Quickly, his interests focus on a student group named S.C.A.P.E. (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). This is but one example of how much this 1973 novel is of its time. The US was getting out of Vietnam but the movements spawned by the late 1960s were still twitching with life. At the time, I suspect, Parker was just writing what he knew. Reading it for the first time in 2008, however, it’s a great immersion into that world. It’s one of the book’s better qualities.
Spenser locates the group’s secretary, Terry Orchard, a twenty-year-old daughter of rich parents, and gets the cold shoulder from her. In another nice introduction to the PI, Spenser decks Orchard’s boyfriend who dislikes that Terry is talking to “the pig.” It’s a fun scene; not much talking to the boyfriend, just punches thrown.
The problem occurs when Spenser gets a call from Terry late the same night. Spenser goes to her apartment and the first thing he smells is cordite and gunpowder. The boyfriend’s laying dead on the floor and the gun, Terry’s gun, was what put the holes in him. Oh, and Terry’s drugged and incoherent. Spenser gets her fixed up and sober then calls the police. They want to pin the crime on Terry and why not? The gun’s hers, it has her fingerprints on it, she had motive, who wouldn’t like it?
Spenser doesn’t and neither do her parents who hire Spenser to acquit their daughter. It’s here where the real story takes off. To be honest—and I don’t think I’m giving anything away in a famous book published thirty-five years ago—the manuscript theft is an afterthought. It turns back up, unexplained. Spenser hardly cares. He’s more concerned with keeping Terry out of jail.
I couldn’t help but think of a couple of quotes from Raymond Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder” as I read Spenser’s first adventure. One quote is this: “Hammett gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons…” In much of the PI fiction I’ve read thus far, there haven’t been too many bodies piled up (pun intended). True, murder has provided a means and a rationale for the story but killing seemed somewhat rare. I guess it was just odd that an ostensibly private citizen would go around shooting people even if they were threatening life and limb. It kind of speaks to why Ed McBain created the 87th precinct as a group of cops rather than a group of private detectives: only cops have the real authority to shoot people. Who knows? Maybe I just need to read more. Anyway, there’s a body count in The Godwulf Manuscript and Spenser, himself, is not without injury. You discover that the Korean War vet is a good shot and keeps his wits about him even as he drags his bleeding body through the snow.
The other quote from Chandler’s essay is all but embodied in Spenser: “But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Many characters in books and film would conduct the job of acquitting Terry Orchard merely as a job. They would go through the motions but not care, one way or another, about the future of an innocent twenty-year-old girl. Not Spenser. He cares for Terry, including one scene when he really cares for her. All during the second half of the book, he repeats that he’s after the truth to spare Terry jail time. He knows what jail will do to her; it’s what it would do to any of us.
I started to conduct some internet research for this review and quickly realized that most of the material on the internet is an accumulation of thirty-five years worth of trivia and data on Spenserdom. I didn’t want to spoil the fun I’m going to have as I read the books in this series. I know enough about Spenser from the Robert Urich TV show to know that he has a friend named Hawk. I kept waiting for Hawk to make an appearance but he didn’t in this book.
One thing I did discover about Parker and Spenser is that Spenser is largely responsible for keeping the PI genre alive. One of the characteristics of mainstream mystery fiction—the kind found both in bookstores and supermarkets—is the niche mystery. You know what I’m talking about: mysteries that involve cats, park rangers, old ladies who like to quilt, young people who like to garden. It’s everywhere. So, if Spenser indeed saved the PI genre, might some of his idiosyncrasies be responsible for niche mysteries? Judging from this first book, it’s possible. Spenser names his beers and bourbon choices. Spenser can quote classical literature and, yet, beat the crap out of a college student. I definitely got the sense that there is much more to Spenser than just a gumshoe with a lonely office.
The notable standout characteristic, however, is Spenser’s cooking. Parker lavishly tells us exactly what haute cuisine Spenser concocts in fine detail. To be honest, it surprised me that a single man of thirty-seven, a PI no less, would take the time to prepare such meals for himself. But later on in the book, he eats cold McDonald’s hamburgers washed down with bourbon. See? Just like us, only a little different.
As a writer, I learned something very important: take the time to describe things, people, and situations. My current novel is a first-person POV story and, to date, I’ve not described things to the detail that Spenser does. My critique grouped has nailed me on it more than once. It helps me, as a reader, to have all the detail Parker makes Spenser provide and it’s something I will now give to my heroine-detective as she moves forward through her story.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Godwulf Manuscript and Spenser as a character so much so that I’ve already put the next book in the chronology, God Save the Child, on hold from the library. I’m a creature of habit and I’ll read any series in order even if it’s not necessary. But I’ve a question for all of y’all who have read more Spenser books than I have: do they have to be read in order?
And for all of y’all who have never experienced the truly American creation that is Spenser, get thee to a bookstore or library and find The Godwulf Manuscript. It’s very entertaining and well worth your time.