Spenser is the creation of Robert B. Parker, 1932 –2010. He is a tough, wise-cracking detective from the ‘hard-boiled’school of crime fiction who prides himself in his self-belief and his autonomy. The series is largely set in Boston, USA, and Robert B. Parker’s skilful pen brings the city vividly to life. The Boston backdrop is one of the highlights of the series, which runs to thirty-nine books, along with Spenser’s laconic narration, an easy voice that offers pleasure to the reader.
Boston, the setting for the majority of the Spenser books
Spenser is an ex-boxer and a Korean veteran. He is also ageless and his physical attributes remain undiminished by the passing of time. The reader can see this as a flaw in that it requires too much suspension of disbelief, or you can accept the premise if you subscribe to the notion that ‘heroes never get old’. What is more troublesome, however, are Spenser’s references to his mother: in some of the books, Spenser’s mother died in childbirth, while in others he refers to her homilies and cooking. Given that an international publisher of some repute published the Spenser series, you feel that someone somewhere should have addressed this anomaly.
Robert B. Parker wrote lean, mean prose and personally I think his books are at their strongest when they are lean and mean as well. As Robert B. Parker’s career progressed he changed publishers and his new publishers seemed to insist on longer books, which meant a lot of ‘middle’and chapters that did little for the overall story. Therefore I would recommend the early books, God Save the Child through to Crimson Joy as the strongest in the series.
To many readers the strongest character in the series is Hawk, Spenser’s sidekick. Hawk is a mercenary, an assassin, a man without apparent emotion. In less skilful hands, Hawk would come across as hard and cold, but the genius of Robert B. Parker makes Hawk the centre of attention whenever he appears; the character consistently enlists the sympathy and support of the reader. Without doubt, Hawk is one of the finest creations in crime fiction.
The other leading character in Spenser’s world is Susan Silverman. Susan Silverman first appears as a guidance counsellor in book two, God Save the Child. In many respects, this is the highlight of her involvement in the series. In the fourth book, Promised Land, Spenser and Susan discuss marriage; she is keen, he is reluctant. By the end of the book, Spenser comes around to Susan’s way of thinking and proposes marriage only for Susan to say that she has changed her mind. As a relationship study this book is excellent and I regard it as my favourite Spenser novel.
In A Catskill Eagle, Susan runs off with a lover. She decides that she cannot escape from him, even though she is not being held against her will, and asks Spenser to ‘rescue’ her. This he does, leaving a trail of devastation and murder in his wake – one of the accepted premises of the Spenser series is that he can commit murder with the tacit approval of the authorities – and when he does finally ‘rescue’ Susan, she offers little gratitude. Maybe none of this matters, except that Spenser’s love for Susan is a central part of the series. In A Catskill Eagle, and the middle series novels, Susan comes across as a self-centred, selfish character and it is difficult to understand why all the other regular characters in the series love her as much as Spenser does. Robert B. Parker wrote from life and he based Susan on his wife, Joan. Maybe it says something about Susan when even Joan Parker stated that she did not like the character! The tiresome nature of Susan’s character is a frustration; with a more sympathetic female in her stead, you feel that the series would qualify as the best in private detective literature. As it stands, it is still essential reading for all fans of the genre.
In defence of Susan she is very much her own woman and in the later books there is a mellow glow to Spenser’s relationship with her that displays the familiarity of a long-standing couple. Susan comes across as a more appealing character in these books, especially when compared to the woman who ran off in A Catskill Eagle. This Susan is likeable, and for this reader certainly more likeable than the character portrayed through the middle books of the series.
The Spenser characters were adapted for television as Spenser: For Hire. The show ran for three seasons and sixty-five episodes with Robert Ulrich in the title role, supported by Avery Brooks as Hawk and Barbara Stock as Susan Silverman. Four movies were also made. Unlike the majority of the TV series, the movies were based on Robert B. Parker’s books. These movies were followed in 1999 by three more movies, made with a new, non-TV series, cast.