Book Review: 'In Pursuit of Spenser'


In 1973, a college professor named Robert B. Parker published his first book -- a novel titled "The Godwulf Manuscript."

Despite its somewhat academic title, the book was a novel about a Boston private detective known only as Spenser, hired to find the titular document -- an activity that quickly blossomed into murder and mayhem.

It was the debut of a character whose exploits would fill an additional 38 best-selling novels, inspire a TV series and several films, and elevate Robert B. Parker into the pantheon of great American detective novelists.

Parker, who also wrote about other detectives as well as stand-alone novels and Westerns, died in January 2010 at his desk, working on his daily quota of five pages, which he turned out six days a week.

But Parker's death doesn't mean the end of his most popular creation. Novelists Ace Atkins and Michael Brandman have just published new novels that feature Spenser and police chief Jesse Stone, respectively, that have received glowing praise from Parker fans.

Parker's influence and importance in the private-eye genre is also the reason for "In Pursuit of Spenser," a collection of essays by some of today's leading crime novelists expressing their thoughts about Parker and his work.

Some of the contributors are ardent fans, such as Atkins, whose piece "Songs Spenser Taught Me" includes such passages as "Spenser gave me the tools to be the sort of adult I wanted to be."

That's because Parker created in Spenser something more than just a character who readers would like enough to follow through a series of novels.

He deliberately set out to establish within the uniquely U.S. genre of the private-eye story a definitive American hero, one that was a logical yet individual expansion on the characters of Parker's own literary heroes -- the professionalism of Hammett's Continental Op, the cynical romanticism of Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, the introspection and understanding of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer.

"And what, exactly, drives Spenser?" writes Brendon DuBois in "A Man for All Seasonings." "What are his rules? We learn it cleanly and clearly in 'Promised Land,' where Spenser explains, 'I try to be honorable. I know that's embarrassing to hear. It's embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live life largely on my own terms.'"

Several of the writers refer to Parker's 1980 novel, "Looking for Rachel Wallace," as perhaps the most revealing book about Spenser's character, as he is given the job first to protect, then to rescue, a lesbian feminist author for whom Spenser seems to represent everything she despises in men in particular and society in general.

Other writers focus on specific aspects of the Spenser saga. Lyndsay Faye writes in "Spenser and the Art of the Family Table" about the character's ability as a cook (Spenser is -- in addition to being well-read, physically fit and an expert shot -- a gourmet cook) and how this is also an important part of his personality as a hero.

Faye also includes her interpretation of a recipe Spenser might whip up -- Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops in a sauce of brandy, cream and clam juice, with sauteed leeks and shiitake mushrooms and lots of garlic and tarragon).

S.J. Rozen addresses one of the more contentious personalities in the Spenser novels -- Susan Silverman, Spenser's longtime paramour.

"It tends to be the case," Rozen writes, "that readers, like me, who start with the early Spenser books think more highly of Susan than readers who come in later in the series. Early on, Susan shines with her own glow. By the middle of the series, Spenser's adoration glares so brightly it obliterates her.

"Which is what Susan thinks, too; it's why she leaves him ... it also leads, in 'A Catskill Eagle,' to one of the bloodiest drawn-out rampages in Spenserdom."

But that's because Spenser is off to rescue his damsel from distress, and, as any good hero would, he's not about to let anything get in his way.

Max Allen Collins and Matthew Clemens write perceptively about the various ways Spenser has been portrayed on the small screen, first by Robert Urich, then by Joe Mantegna; Reed Farrell Coleman examines the differences between Spenser and Jesse Stone; and Ed Gorman addresses how Westerns influenced Parker's writing, and how Parker added to that uniquely American genre.

Parker himself is represented in an original piece, in which Spenser is interviewed about his work and why he does it.

But maybe the best assessment of Parker's ideals about his character, and how well he achieved those ideals, is stated by Gorman, who writes:

"For all the reality in the Spenser series, it's really about myth ... This is by no means a criticism. Parker just did what two centuries of American writers did before him had done -- created vivid romances involving derring-do and meting out justice. If it was good enough for Sir Walter Scott, it was good enough for Robert B. Parker."

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