‘`The Golwulf Manuscript’ is the first in Robert B. Parker’s much-lauded and immensely popular Spenser series. Written in 1973 when Parker was still teaching literature for a day job, it introduces the world to his wise-cracking hard-as-nails sleuth Spenser (spelled with an ‘S’, like the English poet). I discovered Spenser mysteries by chance when I was a teenager and picked up a copy of ‘Mortal Stakes’ from a second-hand bookshop because it looked short and had a cool front-cover. As with many people, what struck me most was the voice of the narrator, and within a few pages, he and I became friends.
Parker was a Chandler disciple and was known to have written his PhD thesis on the role of the hero figure in 20th century literature, with a particular interest in hardboiled detective writing. And it shows. TGW marks an unapologetic homage to Chandler, something Parker made no bones about, but any kind of literary kleptomania must be excused for the pace and plotting of this punchy little piece.
This debut sees Spenser hired to seek out a stolen manuscript from a Boston university faculty, a task which leads him into the realms of murder and double-crossing, domestic disputes and weird occultist sects. Violent, funny, fast and visceral, the first-person narrative takes us into the head of an investigator who is hard as nails, knows he is, but who also has the brains behind it, which his heffalump appearance often defies.
One thing I’ve always liked about Spenser is he’s a character who likes being himself, and doesn’t want to change that – in that sense, he differs from many of his P.I. peers in this crime fiction tradition, men who are often brooding, self-destructive, mercurial loners. When I pick up a Spenser book, I know I’m going to be hanging out with a buddy – a bloke who likes cooking, clothing, pushing weights, pretty women, and who has a firm moral code he won’t deviate from, even if it means forfeiting his fee. These traits are consistent throughout the books – what changes and is of recurrent interest in the books are the dilemmas Parker creates for his hero.
This is a somewhat conventional, and cavalier outing compared to later ventures, and was no doubt an attempt for Parker to find his feet and voice. But even so, the writing is incredibly assured and creates a universe of characters that hook the reader in. Check out the broody copper partnership of Belson and Boyle who are mainstays in later books. The only omission in TGW is Hawk, Spenser’s alter ego, an African American hitman, Spenser’s yin to his yang, and a man who in spite of their differences becomes his best friend and wingman.
If you’ve seen photos of Parker and read his bio, the parallels with Spenser jump out – both are stocky Bostonians, ex-servicemen, keen readers, gourmets, and weight lifters; both look like bruisers, but turn out to be learned gents. Both also kept dogs called Pearl. Spenser has a droll and sardonic sense of humour, noticeable from page one of TGW when he gently mocks the dean of the university as they solicit his services, a quality which Parker was known to have shared.
Plots in Spenser books tend to be secondary to characters – there don’t tend to be major cliff hangers or twists. We know who the good guys are (Spenser, and anyone he likes), that he can’t be felled because he is our narrator, and because he is a super-sleuth with a sixth sense for these kinds of things, we pretty much know who the bad guys are, too, and that somehow, they’ll get their come-uppance. In that sense, these books conform to many standards of the traditional hero story.
Parker wrote of Boston with what I’ve been assured is an encyclopaedic knowledge – the streets, the smells, the dynamics and the disparities. I’ve been to Boston once about ten years back and took great pleasure in spotting a few reference points from the books, as if sharing a private joke. Although sticking to traditions, Parker was also a forward-thinking crime writer, not afraid to tackle topics that for the time might have seemed controversial. Racism, illiteracy, homosexuality and misogyny are themes that anchor some of the later books, and which make them still provocative.
Ultimately though, what makes Spenser such a compelling protagonist is his contradictory nature – on the one hand, here is an alpha, a macho male who pushes weights, fights, carries a Browning and loves ogling over pretty women. But he’s also able to intellectually joust with academics and make them look dumb, as indeed Parker did, and in doing so, he invites the reader to take a certain pleasure in defying people’s expectations.
Although hardboiled, the books are romantic in certain fundamental ways – for example, Spenser never ages, even though three decades and thirty odd books feature him. In addition, he stays committed to one woman only, his Jewish psychotherapist beau Susan Silverman.
I once read a Parker interview where he was asked why he thought people liked his books so much – his answer was he figured people liked the way they sound.
But each time I read (and reread) a Spenser book, I completely get it. Dialogue heavy, with an economical ear for precise and terse language, this is deceptively simple writing that just sounds good.
Here’s a fact, and an indicator of my loyalty to these books – I’m so into Spenser, I persuaded my wife we should name our boy after him. ‘Nuff said.