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Bookends: Spenser – from the Beginning August 16, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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By Dan Davidson

June 20, 2012 ,       Star, June 22/12

– 805 words –

The Godwulf Manuscript

By Robert B. Parker

Dell Books

208 pages


Audible.com unabridged version

narrated by Michael Prichard

5 hours, 12 minutes

The very first book in the Spenser series introduces us to a fellow who is a lot more like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer than he would be later in his life. This is Spenser alone, not terribly happy with himself, drinking too much, capable of sleeping with a mother and daughter (not at the same time) within a 24-hour period. There is no Hawk and especially, there is no Susan.

Robert Parker had done his homework, though. He had, after all, written his doctoral thesis on the hard-boiled, mean streets type of private eye that had inhabited Black Mask and other such pulp magazines. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald were among the best of the lot who wrote this type of story, and Parker’s Spenser was originally cut from the same bolt of literary cloth, through he eventually became a much nicer, happier man.

Some things remained constant throughout the next 39 books. Spenser was an ex-cop who left the force because he had authority issues. He was an amateur boxer and had spent time in the military during the Korean War. He is 37 in this book (in 1973) and would age to just a shade under 50 during the 40 years that Parker (who died in 2010) wrote the series. Spenser would remain the master of the dry quip and the quick omelet throughout his career.

Other biographical details did change a bit. In an early book Spenser remembers some advice his mother gave him, but it was later established firmly that he was born by C-section and raised by his father and uncles after she died giving him life.

While this book has a title that immediately recalls the work of Robert Ludlum, the story has the feel of a Chandler novel. Spenser is hired to find a manuscript that has been stolen from a university collection. The university folk come off rather badly in this book and may reflect Dr. Parker’s ambivalent feelings about academia. He was a full professor when he quit to write full time after the fifth book in this series.

Following some slender leads brings Spenser to an early 70s radical group called SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation), where he meets Terry Orchard, a poor little rich girl acting out against a sterile home life and disturbed parents. Within 24 hours Terry has her boyfriend murdered in front of her and herself set up to take the fall. Drugged by the killers, she manages to call Spenser for help.

He is hired by her parents to prove her innocence, a job that does not conflict with his original task since Terry doesn’t have the manuscript or actually know anything about it, although it turns out that her boyfriend did and that is why he has been killed. That he takes the case and is doggedly determined in his defense of Terry is the bit about this book that seems most Spenser-like to me. In the later books he will do things simply because they are the right thing to do, and there is that touch here.

This book gives us a first look at Joe Broz, the mobster who will turn up regularly throughout the series. In a scene very much like one that occurs in Sixkill, the last of the series from Parker’s word processor, there is a confrontation in which Spenser demolishes one of Broz’s hit men in a demonstration of hand-to-hand combat.

We also meet Spenser’s two recurring police characters, Lt. Quirk and Det. Frank Belson. The interaction here is a bit rough edged, as it is their first meeting, but there is definite chemistry before the story ends.

In this book Spenser has only the very beginnings of what will evolve into his personal code of conduct. Most of the later books just talk about sex, and then mostly with Susan. This one is full of it, including the arrangement I mentioned earlier, and one other pairing which closes off the story on a note of promise.

I wasn’t keen on the narrator of this book. Michael Prichard’s voice has a rather flat affect, and did not lend itself to this type of story as well as that of other readers, particularly Joe Mantegna, who played the character in several A&E TV movies. Still, I got used to it and he did not get in the way of the story.

Spenser novels are not long, generally clocking in at just under 5 ½ hours when read aloud. This is just perfect for the distance from Dawson to Whitehorse.




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