books

Robert B. Parker

Books

Spenser: The Godwulf Manuscript (1973), God Save the Child (1974), Mortal Stakes (1975), Promised Land (1976), The Judas Goat (1978), Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980), A Savage Place (1981), Early Autumn (1981), Ceremony (1982), The Widening Gyre (1983), Valediction (1984), A Catskill Eagle (1985), Taming a Seahorse (1986), Pale Kings and Princes (1987), Crimson Joy (1988), Playmates (1989), Stardust (1990), Pastime (1991), Double Deuce (1992), Paper Doll (1993), Walking Shadow (1994), Thin Air (1995), Chance (1996), Small Vices (1997), Sudden Mischief (1998), Hush Money (1999), Hugger Mugger (2001), Backstory (2002), Potshot (2002), Widow's Walk (2003), Bad Business (2004), Cold Service (2005), School Days (2005), Hundred Dollar Baby (2006), Now and Then (2007), Rough Weather (2008), The Professional (2009), Painted Ladies (2010), Sixkill (2011)

Spenser mysteries are set in Boston Massachusetts, and Spenser is one of those literate tough guys you wish really existed.

What I found interesting as I re-read these books, is that I typically remembered not the plots, but bits of dialogue and random lines. Not that I dislike the plots, but it's the dialogue that I love. The books are fun to read, and sound like they were fun to write, which is why I suppose he keeps writing them.

Regarding the characters, I love Hawk. But that should come as no surprise, as many of my other favorite characters from other books are bad guys as well. I like the fact that he's not any one thing--although he is a thug, Robert B. Parker makes him much more than that, with occasional reminders that he does, in fact, often work on the other side of the law.

I find Susan irritating, although not from the start. I think the thing that grates on my nerves the most is that the way he describes her eating habits--she sounds like an anorexic (or a bulimic I suppose with all the exercise) and that really bothers me. If she works out as much as he says, then she shouldn't so fastidious about her eating habits.

"Never knew somebody knew more stuff that didn't matter."
--Hawk

I highly recommend the Bullets and Beer site. It contains a synopsis, as well as information about recurring characters, what Spenser ate and drank, favorite quotes, and literary allusions.

 

Spenser

 

The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)

Godwulf ManuscriptThe first Spenser book. Spenser is no where near as admirable in this book as he is in later books, but it's interesting to see where things start.

  

  

God Save the Child (1974)

God Save the ChildThis is number two, and I remembered the plot of this book, primarily because it was so depressing.

  

  

Mortal Stakes (1975)

Mortal StakesBaseball!

  

  

Promised Land (1976)

The first book with Hawk, and he is far more explicitly on the other side of the law than in any other book.

We see that Spenser's priorities are to do what he believes is right rather than what is legally correct.

A man hires Spenser to find his wife. Only the husband is in over his head with other things, and the wife doesn’t necessarily want to be found and returned home.

First, this book has Hawk’s first appearance. (I think that Hawk is where the narrator fell the flattest for me. I love Hawk, and this reading just didn’t do it for me.)

“I’ve asked Spenser here to see if he can find my wife, Pam.”

Hawk said, “I’ll bet he can. He’s a real firecracker for finding things. He’ll find the ass off of a thing. Ain’t that right, Spenser?”

“You always been one of my heroes too, Hawk. Where you staying?”

“Ah’m over amongst de ofays at de Holiday Inn, Marse Spensah.”

“We don’t say ofays anymore, Hawk. We say honkies. And you don’t do that Kingfish dialect any better than you used to.”

“Maybe not, but you should hear me sing ‘Shortnin’ Bread,’ babe.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” I said.

Second, this book has Spenser and Susan working out their relationship. Susan irritates the crap out of me in some of the later books, which is why I forget that I quite like her in the earlier books. She’s strong–quite a strong woman for who she is and at the time this book was written–1976.

“To have a real relationship you gotta suffer?”

“You have to risk it,” she said. “You have to know that if it gets homely and unpleasant you can’t just walk away.”

“And that means marriage? Lots of people walk away from marriage. For crissake, I got a lady client at this moment who has done just that.”

“After what, twenty-two years?” Susan said.

“One point for your side,” I said. “She didn’t run off at the first sprinkle of rain, did she. But does that make the difference? Some J.P. reading from the Bible?”

“No,” Susan said. “But the ceremony is the visible symbol of the commitment. We ritualize our deepest meanings usually, and marriage is the way we’ve ritualized love. Or one of the ways.”

“Are you saying we should get married?”

“At the moment I’m saying I love you and I’m waiting for a response.”

“It’s not that simple, Suze.”

“And I believe I’ve gotten the response.” She got up from the bar and walked out.

I’d also forgotten how much thought Spenser puts into what he does and who he is. He finds Pam Shepherd, but refuses to return her to Harvey–or even tell Harvey where she is. He just tells Harvey that she is healthy and left of her own volition.

He also refuses to turn his back on the couple, even though they have both completely screwed up their lives.

But it’s more than that. Even once they talk again, it’s clear that everything isn’t hunky dory, and that they both had problems they need to work out–it’s realistic.

And of course there is the food.

“Nope. I’ll take the fighter, lover, but the gourmet cook is a sexist remark.”

“Why?”

“If you’d cooked this no one would say you were a gourmet cook. It’s because I’m a man. A man who cooks and is interested in it is called a gourmet. A woman is called a housewife. Now eat the goddamned spaghetti,” I said. She did. Me too.

Audible Edition (1976/1987) narrated by Michael Prichard

I’ve discovered that I exercise best with exciting mysteries I’ve previously read. If the book is good, then I want to keep walking just a little bit longer, to hear just a little more. But it can’t be something I’ve never read, because then I won’t stop listening, and that interferes with trying to function as a normal human.

I’ll be honest, there isn’t anything wrong with Michael Prichard as the narrator. The problem is that my first Spenser book was Small Vices, read by Burt Reynolds, and he does such a fantastic job, this version just fell a little flat.

It’s been a long time since I’ve gone through the Spenser series, and I decided that since I’ve finished up all the Faith Hunter Jane Yellowrock audible books that are currently available, Spenser would be a good choice. But not starting at the first book, because that wasn’t particularly a favorite. But since I already had this audio book, it seemed a fine place to start.

And it was.

Now I’ve started, I figure I’ll just keep on listening–and Michael will be sad, because he loves Spenser as well, but never thinks to listen to audiobooks on his own. :)
Rating: 8/10 (Dinged because I just can’t love the narrator.)

Published by Random House Audio

The Judas Goat (1978)

Spenser is a bit more aggressive and violent than in other books. Hiring on as a bounty hunter doesn't seem quite in character if you started with some of the more recent books, and I don't believe he would have taken on such a case later.

Added bonus: He gets to spend lots of time with Hawk.

The Judas Goat, Audible Version (1978/1987) narrated by Michael Prichard

Spenser has been hired by Hugh Dixon, a millionaire whose family was killed in a bombing in London. Hugh Dixon wants the terrorists caught or killed, and he’ll pay Spenser a bounty for each kill or capture.

First, it’s odd for Spenser to take such a case–the fact that he’s still not that successful has a lot to do with it.

Second, we get Hawk again, when Spenser needs help in London.

Third, the world in which this book is set is nearly incomprehensible to the modern reader. Spenser is able to carry a handgun in London and Canada. Hawk is able to easily purchase (and modify) shotguns. But most bizarre, the the bad guys (as well as Hawk and Spenser) are able to sneak guns into an Olympic venue. And Hawk travels to London without documentation, apparently.

It’s like the past is an alternate reality where security was not the end of everything.

It’s fascinating.

Again, the reader isn’t bad, he’s just not what I’m used to listening to as far as modern eBooks.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Random House Audio

Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)

Unlike some of the other unlikable characters that Spenser works for later on, Rachel Wallace does have many redeeming characteristics, although it's hard to see that at first. This is the first of two cases that will deeply affect Spenser.

Looking for Rachel Wallace, Audio Version (1980/1987) narrated by Michael Prichard

I’d somehow forgotten how good this story is.

I’d forgotten that at the start of the series Spenser said he had fought in Korea, which would of course make him even older than I remembered.

“And you were in combat in Korea?”

I nodded again. “

And you were a policeman?”

Another nod.

“And now you do this.”

It was a statement. No nod required.

Spenser is hired to protect Rachel Wallace, a feminist writer who has been threatened for her expose of the patriarchy and male domination. Remember that this was written in 1980, so those were still shocking things.

“You’re begging the question, I think. We haven’t established my distaste for radical feminism. We haven’t even in fact established that you are a radical feminist.”

“I have learned,” Rachel Wallace said, “to assume a distaste for radical feminism. I rarely err in that.”

“Probably right,” I said.

It also has a lot of introspection of Spenser’s part, as to why he acts as he does, which is what makes the story so fascinating. Big tough men were not introspective in 1980, nor did they cry after having to kill.

It’s this complexity that makes Spenser so fascinating, and why although the setting is stuck in time, Spenser himself remains timeless.
Rating: 9/10 (for the story, I still don’t love the narrator)

Published by Random House Audio

A Savage Place (1981)

A Savage PlaceA Savage Place is the second case that will come to deeply affect Spenser, and is very important to the story line. There will be frequent references to this case as the time-line continues. You'll also see characters from this book appearing from time to time.

 

Early Autumn (1981)

Early AutumnPaul Giacomin makes his first appearance. I liked this book because it tells you quite a bit about Spenser, and his ideas about the world. I also like the changes in Paul, and Spenser's ideas about child rearing.

 

Ceremony (1982)

CeremonyApril Kyle and prostitution.

  

  

The Widening Gyre (1983)

Widening GyreI found The Widening Gyre interesting for several reasons. First, ultra-Conservatives are still an important issue today, so it's interesting to see how they were addressed in 1983. Second, we have yet another case of Spenser doing what he thinks is right over what is legal. Third, what happens with Joe Borz will have repercussions for years to come.

This is also the book where we get the first hint that things are not as they seem with Susan.

Valediction (1984)

ValedictionThis is the book where started to dislike Susan. It is never the less a good book, and I really enjoy Spenser and Hawks interactions with Paul Giacomin.

"The next time I woke up Linda was gone and so was Belson. Hawk was there and Paul. As I came out of the sleep I heard Paul's voice, softly.

'No, like this, shuffle, ball, change. You see, shuffle, ball, change.' I heard his feet move lightly on the hospital floor. 'How can a man with your heritage not be able to tap-dance.'

I heard Hawk's gliding chuckle. 'My ancestors busy eating missionaries, boy. We didn't have no time for no fucking shuffle ball change.'

'Well, you wanted me to show you.'

'That's before I knew you was going to do it better than me,' Hawk said."

A Catskill Eagle (1985)

Catskill EagleThis is the book where I really dislike Susan. She comes across as shallow and neurotic. She's chosen to date some psychopath, knows he's bad news, but won't walk away. Ugh. You may have to read this book to really understand Spenser, but I don't particularly have to like it.

Its only redeeming quality is that Spenser spends lots of time with Hawk.

Taming a Seahorse (1986)

Taming a SeahorseTakes us back to April Kyle and Patricia Utley for another look at prostitution. It also has one of my random favorite passages.

The five o'clock news ended. The six o'clock news began. The guys who read the news at six had deeper voices. Authoritative. If that trend continued, the guys who read the eleven o'clock news would sound like Paul Robeson.

For some reason, that makes me smile every time I read it.

Pale Kings and Princes (1987)

Pale Kings and PrincesCocaine trade.

  

  

Crimson Joy (1988)

Crimson JoyA good book, but I'm not sure that I buy the tie to Susan. Sure it's fun to see Quirk working with Hawk, but there I'm just not sure I accept the premise. But that, of course, doesn't mean it couldn't be that way.

 

Playmates (1989)

PlaymatesPoint shaving in college basketball. What I particularly liked was Spenser's indignation that someone could go to college and yet be unable to read.

 

Stardust (1990)

StardustThe second book in a row where Spenser is asked to help someone who isn't particularly likable, yet does the job anyway. We're also introduced to Victor del Rio and Chollo.

  

  

Pastime (1991)

PasttimeIn a reversal of Early Autumn Spenser helps Paul Giacomin find his mother.

  

 

Double Deuce (1992)

Double DeuceSpenser helps out Hawk. We've assumed all along that there was give and take in the relationship, but now we finally get to see Hawk more on his own terms.

 

Paper Doll (1993)

Paper DollA particular favorite. A society wife is murdered and no one understands why.

  

  

Walking Shadow (1994)

Walking ShadowChinatown, sex, and murder. I particularly like Mei Ling Shen and her fascination with Hawk.

  

  

Thin Air (1995)

This AirBelson's wife disappears. Spenser helps find her and gets to spend some time hanging out with Chollo.

  

  

Chance (1996)

ChanceLots more unlikable characters who may or may not be deserving of Spenser's help.

  

  

Small Vices (1997)

small_vices

Small Vices was my introduction to Spenser. It is also the reason I have some small affection for Burt Reynolds.

Back when I worked in a lab, audio books were the only thing that salvaged my sanity when doing endless hours of cell culture, so I'd listen to almost anything as long as it was unabridged. Thus I ended up with a copy of Robert B. Parker's Small Vices (Spenser Mysteries (Audio)) read by Burt Reynolds. I was shocked by how good the book was and by what a great job Burt Reynolds did with the reading.

And so I completely fell in love with the Spenser books.

If you're going to enter the Spenser series in the middle, this would probably be one of the best places to do it, because although the book mentions past history, nothing is dependent upon knowing that past history, and the story if very good.

SPOILER:

However what I like best about this book is the fact that Spenser isn't infallible, and the fact that when Spenser gets hurt, the recovery is real. There's no instant recovery from a life threatening wound, but instead a long time in the hospital, followed by an even longer recovery. And it's hard. He describes how walking is a struggle, how he can barely use his arm, and how much WORK he has to do to come back from there. I though the whole thing was both well done, and necessary, because too many books and movies gloss over the injuries the hero takes, and make the recovery nearly non-existent.

For this Robert B. Parker has made my top ten favorite authors list.

END SPOILER

If you like Spenser books, this is really a must read book. If you have not read a Spenser book, this would be a pretty good place to jump into the series. And if you like audio books, I also recommend the Burt Reynolds unabridged version.
Rating: 9/10

Audio Book narrated by Burt Reynolds

Small VicesThis audio book was my first exposure to Robert B. Parker.

I was doing mind-numbingly dull lab work, and audio books kept me from losing my mind, so I was willing to try almost anything.

I fell in love almost instantly.

Spenser is hired to find out if Ellis Alves, a small-time criminal, is actually guilty of the murder of a Pemberton college girl.

The deeper Spenser looks into the case, the flimsier the case looks, but the deeper Spenser looks, the harder someone tries to stop him from looking.

I have a feeling I’m going to go back and reread this relatively soon, so I’ll just address the audio portion of the book here.

When I first heard this book, I feel in love with everything about it, including the narration.

The story has held up over time, but I’m not as sure about the narration.

Burt Reynolds does Hawk and Spenser very well, but it’s the secondary characters I’m not as certain about. Spenser works out of Boston, but none of the characters had a Southie–or even Boston–accent. This isn’t something I recognized when I first listened, but it is something I became aware of this time. So, first thing to note: Burt Reynolds can’t do a Boston accent of any sort.

Secondly, the first time I listened to this, I was sitting at a lab bench in a quiet lab.

This listen, I’m fifteen years older, with the hearing loss that comes from too much loud music when I was younger, and we listened in the car. Our small car, that has a not insignificant amount of road noise.

We had to have it cranked very loudly, and even then, some of the narration was hard to get. Burn Reynolds has a low voice, and he tends to frequently elide his words. So some passages were very hard to understand. I don’t think this would have been an issue if I was listening somewhere quiet, but I know lots of people listen to audio books in the car, so that’s something you’ll want to take into consideration.

But mostly, I still love this books, and despite minor flaws, the audio books is as enjoyable as it ever was.
Rating: 7/10

Published by Phoenix Audio

Sudden Mischief (1998)

Sudden MischiefAnother book that I'm not particularly fond of; as Spenser helps Susan's ex-husband we get to spend a lot of time dealing with Susan's neuroses. I know that it's supposed to give her more depth, but I find it frustrating instead.

Hush Money (1999)

Hush MoneySpenser again helps Hawk, and we learn a (tiny) bit more about Hawk. I thought the scene with Lee Farrell was a bit forced; we already know that Spenser could care less what anyone's sexual preference is.

Hugger Mugger (2001)

Hugger MuggerSpenser goes South to find out who has been shooting horses at the Three Fillies. I quite liked this book, both for the characters, and for the ending.

  

  

Backstory (2002)

BackstoryOnce again Spenser takes a case as a favor for someone, and ends up working for someone who isn't particularly likable or admirable.

  

Potshot (2002)

PotshotI liked this book, but I honestly thought it was going to be the last Spenser book. Why else would he gather almost everyone Spenser has ever worked with, together in one place? But it wasn't the last book, and it really a lot of fun.

 

Widow's Walk (2003)

Widows Walk

 

 

 

Bad Business (2004)

Bad Business

The danger in reading a Spenser book is that I then want to go back and reread all the other Spenser books. All 28 of them.

But as I reread them just a year ago, I'll try to restrain myself.

Spenser takes what seems to be a simple divorce case, where he tails a cheating husband, until he finds out that someone else is tailing the woman involved with the adulterous spouse. And things get more complicated from there.

I really liked the idea of two different detectives tailing the different members of a cheating couple, then trading business cards. One has to think that such an occurrence has to have happened before, but I don't remember reading anything like that before.

Because of the inevitable murder, we get a brief appearance by Healey, and another appearance by Quirk and Belson, but they were short parts, more for information than the interaction between Spenser and the cops. And we also get a brief spot by Rita Fiore who seems to be as good looking as ever.

On the other side, we get Vinnie. And lots of Hawk. Which is fine with me, because I love reading about Hawk, though I wonder whether I'd like a Spenser book as much if Hawk wasn't in it. There's something about the dialog with Spenser and Hawk that I love reading. Of course I enjoy all Robert B. Parker's dialog, but there's something about the banter between Hawk and Spenser that I just love.

Hawk showed up in my office just before noon with several sandwiches in a bag. he took one out and handed it to me.

"Six grams of fat," he said. "I figure, I eat enough of these and I get to do one of those commercials."

"Hawk," I said. "You were born with two percent body fat, and you've trimmed down since."

"So we lie to them."

"We?"

"I thought you might want to get in on it," Hawk said.

"I'll eat a couple and see if my belt feels loose."

"How 'bout coffee," Hawk said.

"I made a fresh pot," I said.

"When?"

"Yesterday."

"Be fine," Hawk said.

And as always, Robert Parker manages to come up with a bit that I absolutely love, like the bit about the newscasters in Taming a Seahorse. In Bad Business the bit that got me was this:

It was 5:30 in the morning. Healey and I were drinking coffee out of thick white mugs at the counter of a small diner on Route 20. I felt the way you feel when you've been up all night and drunk too much coffee. If I'd still smoked I would have drunk too much coffee and smoked too many cigarettes and felt worse. It wasn't much in the way of consolation. But one makes do.

Perhaps it's because I've spent nights drinking too much coffee and smoking too many cigarettes, but that passage evokes for me precisely that tired, wired, ill feeling better than any other book I can think of.
Rating: 7/10

Cold Service (2005)

cold service.jpg

I had figured that I was going to have to wait a year, until it came out in paperback, to read the latest Spender book. However, we found a hardback copy at Half Price Books, cheaper than the coming paperback will be, so we got it.

There was a rush to finish our current books, a race that Michael won, and as he got to read it firstI didn't start it until last night. (It was a close race--I only had about three pages left in my book when he grabbed Cold Service.)

Like all Spenser books, it's good. Not my favorite, but still good.

The book starts with Hawk in the hospital, and Spenser sitting by his bedside. Which is only fair, considering the amount of time Hawk has spent sitting in Spenser's hospital rooms. It was interesting, the difference between Hawk's recovery here, and Spenser's in Small Vices. I suppose the difference is that Spenser is the main character, and Hawk is a supporting character, so we see only glimpses of his recovery, although we know that Spenser is around throughout.

Although the story focuses on Hawk's revenge upon those who put him in the hospital, the underlying story and theme are really the subtle differences between Hawk and Spenser. As similar as the two may be, there are differences, and there are things that Hawk is willing to do that Spenser is not. Those things have come up before, but not nearly so much as they do in this book.

Oddly enough, the conflict that Spenser seems to feel does not come across quite as clearly as I expected, which is perhaps why this is only a good book and not a great one. There is little of Spenser's inner life here--instead of seeing the conflict in his thoughts we see it through his discussions with Susan, as well as with Cecile, Hawk's girlfriend. Somehow that made the whole thing slightly less real and less important to me.

I'm thinking that perhaps this book wanted to be longer than it turned out to be, and perhaps that's the difference.

If you have not read a Spenser book before, this is probably not a good place to start. The dialog is, as always, good, but as I said there is far less of Spenser's inner life, and that made it feel as if something was missing. Also, knowing nothing about the Gray Man would definitely reduce the impact of this book, since a brief synopsis of Small Vices is nothing like actually having read the book.

As far as supporting characters: Vinnie is around a good deal, Hawk and Spenser have to deal with Tony Marcus, there a brief visit by Quirk, and again Spenser turns to Ives and Epstein.

If you're a Spenser fan, then you're going to want to read this book. If you've not read Spenser book before, don't start here. The timing is just a little bit off here, and so it feels like Robert B. Parker never quite gets into the rhythm of the story. Which isn't so bad, since Robert B Parker on a bad day still is pretty damn good.
Rating: 6/10

 

 

A Robert B. Parker website