Monday, June 20, 2011

Whither Spenser?

When I'm in the mood for a fast read with witty dialogue, I frequently turn to one of Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels.  You may remember Spenser for Hire, the '80s TV series loosely based on the early books in the series.  Spenser (no first name) is a wise-cracking tough-guy private detective living in Boston. The author, who died last year, was  a former English professor whose PhD dissertation discussed the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, and Spenser was clearly the spiritual descendent of characters like Sam Spade and Lew Archer.

Spenser's character evolved throughout the 30+ books in the series.  He always appreciated good food, great literature, and beautiful women, but his woodcarving hobby vanished early on.  His biography also morphed over time.  In one of the early books he tells a dinner guest the salad dressing is his mother's recipe, implying that he learned it from her, but about halfway through the series he claims to have been posthumously delivered by C-section and raised in an all-male home.  Apparently Parker couldn't just leave well enough alone.  Frequently he would write two very different versions of the same basic storyline, as if he couldn't stop tinkering with it.  God Save the Child and Early Autumn, for instance, both deal with an endangered young boy from a dysfunctional home; Spenser rescues them in very different ways.  

My favorite Spenser books are the early volumes centered around the protagonist, his significant other Susan, his best friend Hawk (a studly and slightly sinister black ex-fighter), and a few peripheral characters.  They are more tightly written and less stylized than the later novels, and Parker had not yet adopted the sometimes irritating habit of including a parade of guest characters from other books.  The best of the Spenser novels are well-plotted, suspenseful, and crackling with great dialogue, with an intriguing moral dilemma or two thrown in as a bonus.  Try Mortal Stakes, A Savage Place, or Early Autumn as a starter.

I recently read that Parker's widow and two sons have decided to have another author continue the Spenser series.  I only hope he doesn't muck up the job as thoroughly as the writer doing the James Bond sequels has.

"Sure, I have advice for people starting to write. Don't. I don't need the competition." ~Robert B. Parker

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