More than 45 years ago a mononymous private investigator strolled onto the printed page and into the public consciousness, where he has remained, making him one of the most durable characters of contemporary fiction. He features in 40 novels written by his creator Robert B. Parker and lives on in the series credibly continued by Ace Atkins. Over the course of the series Parker gave this Boston private eye named Spenser, with an S like the poet, a love interest in Susan Silverman, a relationship that lapsed far too often into melodrama for my taste. And Spenser had an unlikely BFF in Hawk, variously described as a gun for hire by anyone with enough money or an enforcer or a body guard. Members of the local underworld as well as members of the area law enforcement agencies appeared in the background of the books frequently.
The plots were solid enough and the characters engaging enough to be optioned for screen adaptation. The casting for the subsequent television series and movies was questionable — as much as I liked Robert Ulrich, he did not have enough edge to fit my idea of Spenser. Joe Mantegna was closer but still not quite right. The selection of Avery Brooks for Hawk, though, was nothing short of inspired. Brooks captured the essence of the urbane thug perfectly, and he is always who I think of when I envision Hawk.
But all of that lay in the future. The Godwulf Manuscript (Houghton Mifflin, 1973) was Spenser’s first case. Reviewing outlets such as Kirkus and the New York Times found it to be nothing out of the ordinary, and perhaps it is not. It seems so to me because of the introduction of its leading character and the establishment of the framework for stories to come. Spenser is retained by a Boston university to locate a stolen illuminated manuscript that is being held for ransom that the university cannot pay. Right away he shows himself to be someone who dislikes authority in almost any form, smart-mouthing the university president and the campus security manager and the police later on. In his search for a lead on the location of the manuscript he meets members of a campus radical group. Shortly thereafter one of them is killed and the other one is charged with his murder. Spenser decides that the police are simply looking for a fast and easy way to close the case and goes full out to find the manuscript and the real killer.
Just how much of Spenser was Parker is a perennial question to serious readers of the books. It’s clear there is some overlap. They were both ex-boxers and they both served in Korea. Someone went to considerable effort to establish a biography of Spenser derived from the books and posted it to Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spenser_(character). Parker was not concerned with biographical continuity in the books, as this article indicates. For instance, sometimes his mother died when he was born and sometimes she died when he was a child. The Wikipedia analysis makes fascinating reading.
Reading The Godwulf Manuscript and then reading a later Spenser title immediately thereafter is especially informative. Recommended to anyone who hasn’t re-read the early books in the series for awhile and particularly to readers who have come late to the Spenser canon.