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 (2000), 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)

The 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)

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


Mortal Stakes (1975)

Baseball!


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. Susanirritates 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 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.

Audio Version (1981/1987) narrated by Michael Prichard

This is another fascinating look at Spenser, his ethics, and how he changes even over the course of the first few book.

He’s still admitting to having served in Korea.

“Do you remember the first time?”

“The time, not the person. It was in Korea. He was just a shape on a night patrol.”

“And it didn’t bother you?”

“Not as much as it would have if he’d shot me.”

One thing to remember is that this was published in 1981–a very different time from now. Yet even then Spenser was thoughtful.

“You still disapprove, don’t you?”

“I do the best I can to approve and disapprove only of my own behavior. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I’m trying now and I’m going to keep at it.”

Also, I think this is the last time Spenser has sex with someone other than Susan.

“No need to generalize. We did more than fuck last night, but we’re not in love. For Susan it wouldn’t have to be love, but it would involve feelings that you and I don’t have: interest, excitement, commitment, maybe some intrigue. For Suze it would involve relationship.

“I can’t say for you, although I bet it had a little something to do with the agent you used to sleep with. For me it was sexual desire satisfied. I like you. I think you’re beautiful. You seemed to be available. I guess we could say that what was involved for me was affectionate lust.”

I still like this passage. It doesn’t feel nearly as dated as it should.

“You weren’t with me. You were there to protect me.”

“Ah-hah,” I said.

She looked at me. There was no humor in her look. Her eyes were wet and her face was somber. “What’s that mean?” she asked.

“It means, loosely, oh-oh. It means that since I’ve been with you, you’ve been between Scylla and Charybdis. You need me to protect you, but the need compromises your sense of self.”

“It underscores female dependency.”

“And in the office up there, you were scared. And being scared, you were glad I was with you, and that underscored the female dependency even more.”

She shrugged.

“And when you told me you could get information from an agent you used to sleep with, you weren’t showing off your liberation, you were being bitter. You were trying to make light of your feeling that to get what you needed, you had to go to a man and get an I.O.U. in return for sexual favors, or something like that.”

It kind of amazes me how well these books have held up.
Rating: 8/10

Published by Random House Audio

Early Autumn (1981)

Paul 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.

Audio Edition (1981/1992) narrated by Michael Prichard

I remembered that I really liked this book, but I’d forgotten was that really, I’d loved it.

All the complexity of Spenser, and all the things I love are here in this story.

“You have this at a restaurant?”

“No. I made this up.”

“I don’t know how you can do that,” he said.

“It’s easy once you know that sauces are made in only a few different ways. One way is to reduce a liquid till it’s syrupy and then add the cream. What you get is essentially pineapple-flavored cream, or wine-flavored cream, or beer-flavored cream, or whatever. Hell, you could do it with Coke, but who’d want to.”

“My father never cooked,” Paul said.

“Mine did,” I said.

“He said girls cook.”

“He was half right,” I said.

“Huh?”

“Girls cook, so do boys. So do women, so do men. You know. He was only half right.”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Why don’t you just let me alone?”

I sat back down beside him. “Because everybody has left you alone all your life and you are, now, as a result, in a mess. I’m going to get you out of it.”

“Whaddya mean?”

“I mean you don’t have anything to care about. You don’t have anything to be proud of. You don’t have anything to know. You are almost completely neutral because nobody took the time to teach you or show you and because what you saw of the people who brought you up didn’t offer anything you wanted to copy.”

“It’s not my fault.”

“No, not yet. But if you lay back and let oblivion roll over you, it will be your fault. You’re old enough now to start becoming a person. And you’re old enough now so that you’ll have to start taking some kind of responsibility for your life. And I’m going to help you.”

“Lots of men dance ballet.”

“Yes,” I said.

“My father says they’re fags.”

“What’s your mother say?”

“She says that too.”

“Well,” I said, “I don’t know about their sex life. What I can say is, they are very fine athletes. I don’t know enough about dance to go much further than that, but people who do know seem to feel that they are also often gifted artists. That ain’t a bad combination, fine athlete, gifted artist. It puts them two up on most people and one up on practically everybody except Bernie Casey.”

“Who’s Bernie Casey?”

“Used to be a wide receiver with the Rams. Now he’s a painter and an actor.”

And, he’s still served in Korea as of this book.

“That is about the ugliest goddamned getup I’ve seen since I came home from Korea,” I said.

Published by Random House

Ceremony (1982)

April Kyle and prostitution.

Ceremony, Audio Book (1982/1992) narrated by Michael Prichard

April Kyle is a pretty sixteen year-old runaway who is working as a prostitute somewhere in the Combat Zone in Boston. Her father wants nothing to do with her, but her mother wants her safe, so Spenser takes on the case.

First, Spenser is still admitting to having fought in Korea here.

Second, I’d forgotten that I quite liked Susan Silverman in the earlier books.

There are dark bits to the book, primarily the bits about prostitution. Yes, teen prostitutes are hard to read about, but even harder was the older woman who is the first prostitute with whom Spenser interacts. She clearly believes she has no value and that all she can hope out of life is what she has.

Hawk is in this book, and we also see Tony Marcus whom Spenser meets for the first time, and Patricia Utley, although we don’t see that much of her.

Publisher: Random House Audio

The Widening Gyre (1983)

I 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.

The Widening Gyre, Audio Version (1983/1992) narrated by Michael Prichard

Spenser is hired to protect a conservative candidate for the Senate. There are several interesting things here.

1) I’ll need to check, but I don’t think his military service was mentioned here at all. So no Korea.

2) Susan Silverman is getting her PhD and it is causing friction between the two of them.

3) Paul is still aging with the books, although Spenser and Susan are not.

4) When meeting with Joe Broz, Spenser makes a comment to himself about how old Joe looks, while he remains unchanged.

5) Spenser’s morality is a little suspect here. He takes cocaine from a 16-year-old girl, but gives it back to her after she agrees to his plan (thinking he is a cop). That’s a very interesting thing to do.

The other thing I particularly like is that the Christian candidate isn’t a hypocrite. He deeply believes the things he says, and acts on those beliefs. It makes him a terrible politician, but a fascinating character.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Random House Audio

Valediction (1984)

This is the book where I 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."

Valediction, Audio Version (1984/1992) narrated by Michael Prichard

Susan has finally graduated–and has decided to move to California. Spenser is very close to falling apart, and so takes on a case for Paul–one of the dancers in his company has disappeared and the head of the company (and her boyfriend) claims she’s been kidnapped by a religious sect called the Bullies.

The things get complicated.

Although he doesn’t mention the Army, Spenser does mention being in Korea in this book. He also talks a bit about getting older (trying to cut back on coffee).

First, the mystery. I do like this mystery, although I think the “surprise” is a bit less of a surprise than it was in 1984, but that’s perfectly fine.

Second, Susan. This is where I start to dislike Susan. I comprehend her need to prove her independence to herself, but (intentionally or not) she plays games with Spenser that are very unpleasant. Refusing to give him her address (even though she knows he could find it), taking up with someone else (although I don’t dislike her honesty in telling Spenser), and generally being a mess and making Spenser a mess in the process.

I appreciate Paul saying all the things the reader is thinking, and that Spenser does listen to him (and Hawk) a tiny bit. But it’s still frustrating.

This, however, also has a scene that has always stuck in my memory and amused me.

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.

That quick exchange is a delightful summation of Hawk.

But aside from all the Susan crap, this is a good mystery.
Rating: 7.5/10

Published by Random House Audio

A Catskill Eagle (1985)

This 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.

The cover of my copy is in even worse shape than this image I found on the web.

Audio Version (1985/1986) Robert B Parker narrated by Michael Prichard

And this is the book where I come to dislike Susan Silverman.

First things first, Spenser is still admitting to having served in Korea in this book.

Now I got that out of the way, this is not my first time with this story, but I still don’t understand Susan and hate how she behaves.

Let’s lay it all out, shall we?

She isn’t being held prisoner. She just… doesn’t leave.

“I couldn’t leave him but I tried to distance the relationship as a start.”

I got up and came around the counter and got some more coffee.

“And Russell knew at once what I was doing and he … he hung on tighter. He put a wiretap on my phone. He had some people watch me. He wouldn’t let me come to New York last winter to watch Paul perform.”

“How’d he stop you,” I said.

Susan greased the inside of a loaf pan, using one of those spray cans. She shook her head as she sprayed it. Then she put the can down and the loaf pan and turned and leaned her hips against the counter with her hands resting palm down on it. Her lower lip was very full. Her eyes were very blue and large.

“He said no,” she said.

But that’s not really what pisses me off. What pisses me off is that she gets Hawk involved, Hawk ends up in jail on murder charges, and Susan herself doesn’t do a damn thing not only to save herself, but to help Hawk, who is in trouble SOLELY because of her.

If it was just herself in the mess, I could forgive her. But instead she continues to do nothing when it is someone else in danger on her behalf, and THAT is unforgivable.

That aside, I do like how complicated Spenser is in this book. He kills in cold blood, and although he doesn’t enjoy it, he does what he needs to do to protect those in his care. Hawk has always been able to do that, but it’s not something Spenser has ever had to do (except, perhaps, in Korea).

“Leo as bad as the two babes say he is,” Hawk said softly, “might be better to kill him.”

“He’ll take it out on them?”

“Maybe,” Hawk said. “Can you do it?”

“Have to,” I said. We looked out the window some more.

“You’re fucked,” Hawk said. “You got too many rules. Against the rules to blow Leo away cold-blooded like. And against the rules to let him burn those whores.” He smiled happily.

So, I enjoy watching Spenser in this story, but could happily never see Susan at all. But of course Spenser does all that for Susan.

Published by Random House Audio

Taming a Seahorse (1986)

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

Audio Edition (986/1987) Robert B Parker narrated by Michael Prichard

April Kyle has once again disappeared, so Patricia Utley has called Spenser to let him know, since no one else cares about her.

Spenser and Susan are much better, although events of the still book remain in the front of their minds.

“I haven’t killed anyone yet this trip.”

Susan was silent for a moment on the phone, then she said, “Ah, that’s what it is. It’s not this, it’s still San Francisco.

“And Idaho.”

She said. “Whatever you did, and whoever you killed, and however you feel about it, you have to judge all of that in context. You were doing what you felt you had to do, and you were doing it for love.”

“The people I killed are just as dead.”

“Yes. It makes no difference to them why you did it. But it makes a difference to me and to you. What we’ve been through in the last couple of years has produced the relationship we have now, achieved love, maybe. Something we’ve earned, something we’ve paid for in effort and pain and maybe mistakes as well. I live with some.”

This is where Susan starts to grate on my nerves. It feel here at times as if to get past the last book, Spenser can no longer mention her flaws. Everything she does is wonderful. She starts to become more two-dimensional than she was in earlier books.

Zero mentions of Korea in this book (or military service at all), although he does mention it had been ten years since he’d seen Patricia Utley.

On the bright side, this book does have two of my favorite Spenser passages.

“Never knew somebody knew more stuff that didn’t matter,” he said. He backed the Jaguar out.

“What else is there to know,” I said. But Hawk was already rolling and didn’t hear me.

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.

I find the quality of the audio fascinating. It’s not that’s it’s terrible, it’s just that the care that is taken today wasn’t back then. At times it is extremely obvious when the narrator stopped to take a break as there are significant changes in his voice from one sentence to the next. It isn’t bad, it’s just something you don’t hear in the currently produced audio books.

This isn’t my favorite story, but I did enjoy it, and I remain fascinated by Spenser’s moral attitudes, especially towards prostitution.
Rating: 6.5/10

Published by Random House Audio

Pale Kings and Princes (1987)

Cocaine trade.

Audio Version (1987/1988) narrated by Michael Prichard

Spenser is sent to Wheaton Mass to look into the death of a reporter who was looking into the cocaine trade. Almost immediately things spiral out of control.

First, no mention of Korea or military service in this book. The last book I find it mentioned is Taming a Seahorse.

I have to admit that I find the resolution to be a little but much–Hawk and Spenser and a Statie in a shoot-out with the locals and the coke people. It just seemed over-the-top. Not that there aren’t often over-the-top resolutions. This one just felt a bit much.

One thing I do like is the little peeks into Spenser’s relationship with manhood, and how it seems to be quite different from what you might expect.

Susan had a new car, a bullet-shaped red Japanese sports car with a turbo-charged engine that would go from 0 to 5 million in 2.5 seconds. She blazed around in it like Chuck Yeager, but it scared me half to death and whenever I could I drove it with the cruise control set to fifty-five so it wouldn’t creep up to the speed of light on me when I glanced at the road.

That is not what you’d expect from a private detective, and I like him so much the better for it. Of course, he had been a cop, which might make a difference. (ie seeing the results of sports cars in car wrecks.)

I also like the emphasis that is put on the suffering of the widow. She’s not brought up and then shunted off, we keep checking back on her, seeing how difficult things are and how terrible a time she is having.

And we also get more of Spenser’s strange ethics, when he won’t turn in someone who has done something pretty awful partially because she is a woman, and partially because that might harm the window. It’s frustrating, but it’s part of Spenser.

Publisher: Random House Audio

Crimson Joy (1988)

A 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.

Audio Version (1988/1999) narrated by Michael Prichard

Someone is killing middle-aged black women in a horrible way, and Quirk has recieved a letter claiming the killer is a police officer. So he calls Spenser in to look at things from the outside (and as someone he can trust who he can talk to).

I have a lot of problems with this book, mostly with Susan.

Unlike previous books, we have brief scenes inside the murder’s head, as he is talking to his psychologist. (Guess who that might be.) It’s not awful, but it is jarring, because it is unexpected (and I don’t remember him doing that again). However, I do kind of get why he added those, bits, because there was no other way to share the information he did in the final scene. And I think that *was* important.

But that wasn’t my biggest problem. My biggest problem would be everyone dancing around Susan’s refusal to discuss her patients once it becomes clear the killer is one of her patients.

I also have grave issues with police procedures in this story–not Quirk bringing in Spenser, but the way Spenser wouldn’t tell the police–or even Quirk–when he is certain who the murderer is. Even if the police believed they had caught the killer, they still had Susan being threatened by someone who was acting like the Red Rose killer.

And I don’t think that if she believed a patient was killing people Susan had any ethical reason to keep quiet about who she suspected. That really bothered me.

So although there were some things I liked about this–mainly the way the killer was humanized–I mostly found it a frustrating story.

Well I’ll be; he mentioned Korea again.

I was driving a black Jeep that year, with a hard top and all sorts of accessories that would have made the one I drove in Korea blush.

So we’ll see if it comes up again.
Rating: 5.5/10

Publisher: Random House Audio

Playmates (1989)

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

Audio Version (1989/1990) narrated by Michael Prichard

Spenser is hired to look into accusations of point shaving at Taft University. He relatively quickly finds the answer, but finding a solution is going to be much harder.

This is one of the Spenser books I really like. Not my top favorite, but very good nevertheless.

I particularly like Dixie (the coach). He’s a blow-hard, but once Spenser finally gets him to listen, it’s clear he’s not actually a completel jerk.

I picked up my gym bag and started out the door.

“Spenser,” Dixie said. I stopped and turned my head. “I didn’t know he couldn’t read,” Dixie said.

“Makes you wonder how he maintained a two point three average, doesn’t it,” I said.

“Maybe we ought to find that out too,” Dixie said.

The other fascinating thing is how none of the teachers colluded to cover up that he couldn’t read. Some didn’t care, some did, but somehow the system just let it happen.

“Do you know that he can’t read?” I said.

“I don’t know it,” Wagner said. “But I suspected it. He missed the midterm, and prevailed upon me to let him do a paper instead. He got an A on the paper. He said he was going to have to miss the final because of basketball. I said he’d have to make it up. I was skeptical about the paper. He missed two scheduled make-ups. He said an incomplete would make him ineligible to play. That Coach Dunham was a martinet, not his phrase, about such things. I knew what was riding on his having a good senior year. I said he could take a D for the course. His grades in his other courses were such that a D wouldn’t make him ineligible.”

“And that was it?” I said.

“No. I spoke to Dr. Roth, the academic coordinator for basketball. I said Dwayne was academically troubled. That I questioned his basic skills and that I thought perhaps he should be tested to see if we could help him.”

It’s fascinating and horrifying, and you can bet it’s still happening today.

Also, Spenser really starts to think and talk about food more here.

Susan was having dinner with friends tonight. I was playing a Matt Dennis tape in my car and planning supper. Fresh crabmeat, maybe, sautéed in olive oil and white wine with red and yellow and green peppers, and mushrooms, and served over rice. Or I could pound out some chicken thigh cutlets and marinate them in lemon juice and tarragon and a drop of virgin olive oil and cook them on my new Jenn-Air indoor grill. I could have a couple more beers while I waited for them to marinate, and I could eat them with some broccoli and maybe boiled red potatoes. I’d put a honey mustard dressing on the broccoli. Or maybe some tortellini …

Remember, this is 1989. Guys were not foodies. We might have been moving past meat & potatoes, but we weren’t that far past it.

Spenser also admits to have fought in Korea in this book.
Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: Random House Audio

Stardust (1990)

The 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.

Audio Version (1990/1991) narrated by Michael Prichard

Spenser is hired to protect television star Jill Joyce, and find who is harassing her. Unfortunately, Jill Joyce isn’t particularly helpful.

“You tell me you don’t know Rojack,” I said. “I go out there and find out you do. You tell me you never heard of Wilfred Pomeroy. I go out there and he tells me you’re married.”

“He’s a liar,” Jill said serenely. “I never have heard of him.”

“He tells me that you never got a divorce.”

“I did too,” Jill said. “I told you he’s a liar.”

Hawk smiled from the windowsill, like a man appreciating a funny remark.

“If you had told me the truth you’d have saved me a couple of days’ driving and talking.”

I find this story fascinating. Jill Joyce behaves terribly towards everyone, constantly lies, constantly drinks to excess, and hits on every male she comes across. Despite that, Spenser (and Susan) see something broken in her that needs help, and so he persists.

I also love Spenser’s compassion and depth.

It was as if he were a shattered cup, badly mended, with the shards of himself barely clinging together.

It’s a sad and lovely description.

Spenser mentions Korea twice in this book, so haven’t stopped mentioning that yet.

We’re starting to get to the bits about irritate me about Susan.

I was watching Susan. Her normal lunch was something like a lettuce leaf, dressing on the side.

I assume that is supposed to be Spenser being aware of how difficult Susan is, but loving her anyway, but focusing on her eating habits irritates me to no end.
Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: Random House Audio  

Pastime (1991)

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

Audio Version (1991/1992) narrated by David Dukes

I thought Michael Prichard was a weak narrator for this series.

In contrast to David Dukes, he was marvelous. I had to listen to multiple words and names mispronounced (including acorn and Vinnie Morris) which was awful, but not as awful as his narration of Hawk and Susan and Gerry Broz.

I considered turning it off and borrowing the ebook, but was in the middle of cooking, and so suffered through it.

Now I see he’s the narrator for the next several books, and I have to decide if I want to read or listen.

The worst part, is that this is an excellent book, where we learn about Spenser’s past, including his growing up, his first love, how he met Hawk…

I’m coming out of the Arena and I run into a group of young white guys. They drunk. Lot of people go to the fights at the Arena are drunk. And one of them spoke loudly, and unkindly of . . . I believe the phrase was jigaboos. At which I took some offense.”

“How many were there?” Susan said.

“Enough so they brave,” Hawk said. “Six, maybe, eight. Anyway, ah expressed my resentment to the guy who had called me a jigaboo, and it caused him to spit out some of his front teeth.

And we also see the resolution of the situation with Joe & Gerry Broz and Spenser, and you almost feel sorry for the two of them at the end.

And we see Paul as a grown man, no longer the young boy who so irritated Spenser when they first met.

I wished I could do this for him. It cost him so much and would cost me so little. But it would cost him much more if I did it for him.

Couple of notes on aging here. No mention of Korea or military service. But he talks about seeing Jackie Robinson play at Ebbet’s field when he was 18 or 19, so that would be between 46 and 57. So that’s still dating him.

But best of all we finally see Spenser talk about his love of cooking.

“You told me how you started to cook,” Susan said. “You never have said why you like it.” “I like to make things,” I said. “I’ve spent a lot of my time alone, and I have learned to treat myself as if I were a family. I give myself dinner at night. I give myself breakfast in the morning. I like the process of deciding what to eat and putting it together and seeing how it works, and I like to experiment, and I like to eat.

If I remember correctly, the next several books coming up are all good, so I think perhaps I won’t listen to them until the narrator switches.

Publisher: Phoenix Books 

Double Deuce (1992)

Spenser 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.

Re-Read: November 2017

Since I disliked the narrator so much when he read the last book, I’m switching to reading the ebooks until … Well, it would be Chance, but the library doesn’t have it, so it looks like it’ll be Small Vices, the first Spenser book I came across, and one of my favorites. (I don’t believe I want to spend my audible credit on Chance.)

But we’re talking about Double Deuce here. Hawk is asked to stop gang murders in a housing project, so he asks Spenser for help.

“I might need some support,” Hawk said.

“You might?”

“Yeah. Pay’s lousy.”

“How much?” I said.

“I’m getting nothing.”

“I’ll take half,” I said.

“You ain’t worth half,” Hawk said. “Besides I got the job and already put in a lot of time on it. Give you a third.”

“Cheap bastard,” I said.

“Take it or leave it,” Hawk said.

“Okay,” I said, “you got me over a barrel. I’m in for a third.”

Be aware the story opens with the murder.

Her name was Devona Jefferson. She was going to be fifteen years old on April 23, and she had a daughter, three months and ten days old, whom she had named Crystal.

It seems to me like that bit there tells you so very much. It’s horrible.

The good part of this story, however, is the dialog between Spenser and Hawk, which I always love.

“How come in books and movies the ghetto is always teeming with life: dogs barking, children crying, women shouting, radios playing, that sort of thing? And I come to a real ghetto, with two actual black people, and I can hear my hair growing?”

“Things are not always what they seem,” Hawk said.

Oh, Susan also asks Spenser to move in with her. That works pretty much as expected.

She cut the tops off the broccoli and threw the stalks away. Then she separated the flowerets and piled them up on her cutting board. I sat on a stool opposite her and watched.

“You could peel those stalks and freeze them,” I said. “Be great for making a nice soup when you felt like it.”

Susan looked at me as if I had begun speaking in tongues. “In my entire life,” Susan said, “I have never, ever felt like making a nice soup.”

Weirdly, that’s one of the passages that has always stuck in my mind.

Despite the horror of a girl and her baby being murdered, and the romantic difficulties of our intrepid heroes, I do like this book.

I couldn’t think of an answer to that, so I kept quiet. I have rarely regretted keeping quiet. I promised myself to work on it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons 

Paper Doll (1993)

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

Re-Read: November 2017

Spenser is hired to look into the murder of the wife of Louden Tripp, who is presented as an ideal wife and mother–a pillar of society without a blemish. Except that she was brutally murdered. So Quill recommends Spenser to look into it. And we meet Lee Farrell for the first time, who I very much like.

Farrell emptied his shot glass, and drank the remainder of his beer. He nodded toward the bartender, who refilled him. There was a flush on Farrell’s cheeks, and his eyes seemed bright.

“How many people in this room you figure are gay?” he said.

I glanced around the room. It was full of men. I swallowed a little more beer. I looked at Farrell and shrugged. “Everybody but me,” I said.

“Pretty sure you can tell by just looking?”

“It’s a gay bar,” I said. “I know you’re gay. Quirk told me.”

“I don’t care,” I said. “I don’t care if you are as good as I am or not. I don’t care if you’re tough or not, or smart or not. I don’t care if you are gay or straight or both or neither. I care about finding out who killed that broad with a framing hammer, and so far you’re not helping me worth shit.”

Farrell sat for a while staring at me, with the dead-eyed cop that all of them perfect, then he nodded as if to himself. He picked up the whiskey and sipped a little and put the glass down.

“You know,” he said, “sometimes if I’m alone, and there’s no one around . . .” He glanced up and down the bar and lowered his voice. “. . . I order a sloe gin fizz,” he said.

“A dead giveaway,” I said. “Now that we’ve established that you’re queer and you’re here, can we talk about the Nelson case?” I said.

That may sound like a ridiculous passage in 2017, but this book was published in 1993, the height of the AIDS crisis, and in the US men like Spenser did not accept men like Farrell. Yet her is Spenser not only not having a problem with a gay policeman, but accepting him.

It’s a small thing, but that may be one of the first times something like that happened in a popular series.

As Spenser looks into her death, it immediately becomes obvious that someone powerful is trying to keep him from looking into the murder.

And let me go off on another tangent. As I write this, it is November 2017, and the news is full of sexual assault and sexual harassment cases. Which made these bits particularly timely. Remember, this was published in 1993.)

Men never laughed quite that way about anything but women in a sexual context. And it was sycophantic laughter, tinged with gratitude that a man of the Senator’s prominence had shared with them not only a salacious remark but a salacious view of life.

“Old enough to bleed,” the Senator said, “old enough to butcher.”

“Why are you interested in Stratton?”

“Some people working for him tried to chase me off the Olivia Nelson case.”

“Probably fucking her, and afraid it’ll get out.”

“Doesn’t sound like the Olivia Nelson I’ve been sold, but say it was, and he was,” I said. “Is it that big a secret?”

“He’s probably going to be in the presidential primaries,” Cosgrove said. “Remember Gary Hart?”

“Okay,” he said. “Here’s the deal. I was, ah . . .” He looked back at his knuckles. “I was . . .” He grinned at me, still sincere, but now a little roguish too. “I was fucking Olivia Nelson.”

“How nice for her,” I said.

“This is off the record, of course,” Stratton said.

“Of course,” I said.

“I got to know her at a few fund-raisers. Her husband’s one of those Beacon Hill old money liberals, and one thing led to another, and we were in the sack.” Stratton winked at me. “You know how those things go,” he said.

“No,” I said. “How?”

Again, this was 1993, and Spenser’s tone here is not what you would expect. Because it was all but expected that prominent politicians would be getting some on the side.

There is more to this, but it comes as part of the bit reveal at the end, so I’ll just say that it seemed appropriate to today.

One of the things I particularly liked about this story was the son, who seems pretty much worthless throughout most of the book.

His stare was full of arrogance. It came with wealth and position. And it came with being a wrestler.

He thought he could toss me on my kiester. If I kept talking to them he was going to try it, and find he had misjudged. It would probably be a good thing for him to learn. But now was probably not the best time for him to learn it.

All through the book he comes across as a worthless, spoiled, jerk. Yet in the end…

Chip looked at his father, who seemed frozen in time, then he went suddenly to his knees beside his sister and put his arms around her and pressed her head against his chest. She let him hold her there.

I love how after seeing this kid as horrible throughout the whole story, suddenly he isn’t.

I do love the bits about food, which take on more prominence as the series continues.

“Those are chicken breasts pounded flat and coated with cornbread crumbs,” I said. “And flavored with rosemary.”

“Will you fry them in lard?” Susan said.

“I will coat a fry pan with corn oil and then pour it out, leaving a thin film in the pan, then I will gently sauté the breast cutlets until golden brown,” I said.

“Exactly,” Susan said.

“And for dessert,” I said, “there’s sour cherry pie.”

I wonder if many people even know what this is anymore:

He nodded, and wrote me out a check in a stately, flowing Palmer-method hand.

I only know that because that is how Grandmom was taught to write.

He’s still admitting to having fought in Korea.

“You fought in Korea. Were you an officer?”

“No.”

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons  

Walking Shadow (1994)

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

Re-Read: November 2017

I’d not actually forgotten how much I like this story, I’d just forgotten the details. On re-read, I realized that details were just one of the things I liked.

First, Spenser is more thoughtful and poetic than usual.

The twenty-three-year-old women who filled the building were restoring makeup, reorganizing hair, reapplying lipstick. The young guys that worked with them were in the men’s room checking the haircut, washing up, straightening ties, spraying a little Binaca. Daisy Buchanan’s. The Ritz Bar. The Lounge at the Four Seasons. Thank God it’s Friday. Children still, most of them, everything ahead of them. Career, sex, love, disaster. All of it still to come, all of it waiting for them while they straightened their ties and smoothed their pantyhose and thought about the first cocktail.

(T)here was no sense that the rain was engendering. That it would bring forth fresh life. Here too the rain seemed almost pestilent as it bore down on the cluttered and makeshift homes that crowded against the slick ocean, where the greasy waves swelled against the waterlogged timbers of the fish piers.

The rain never actually seems to stop in the town, and that helps to set the mood for the rest of the story.

He’s also extra thoughtful.

I looked at the kids for a moment. They were not something new. They were something very old, without family, or culture; prehistoric, deracinated, vicious, with no more sense of another’s pain than a snake would have when it swallowed a rat. I’d seen atavistic kids like this before: homegrown black kids so brutalized by life that they had no feelings except anger. It was what made them so hard. They weren’t even bad. Good and bad were meaningless to them. Everything had been taken from them. They had only rage. And it was the rage that sustained them, that animated their black eyes, and energized the slender, empty place intended for their souls. The kids saw me looking at them and looked back at me without discomfort, without, in fact, anything at all.

In this story Spenser and Susan by a weekend/vacation house in Concord, and start working on it.

when we got the back stairwell down, and the rubble cleaned away, we noticed that the beams supporting the open perimeter of the now stairless well rested, at either end, on nothing at all. As far as we could tell, they were held up by the floor they were supposed to be supporting. This seemed to me an unsound architectural device.

I may possibly have confused what house gets sold in Small Vices. I’ll have to see which when I read it. (I didn’t think Spenser had sold the cabin he and Paul built. But now I’m not sure.

This is the first book in which we see Vinnie Morris and Hawk working together with Spenser. It’s interesting how we don’t actually learn much about Vinnie–he remains and enigma far more than Hawk does.

Vinnie was humming softly to himself.

Hawk looked up from his book. “What you listening to?” he said.

“Lennie Welch,” Vinnie said.

Hawk looked blank.

Vinnie gave him a sample. “‘ You-oo-oo-oo made me leave my happy home . . . ’”

“Lucky you can shoot,” Hawk said and went back to his book.

Then we have the bit of the story that has always stuck me with.

Though it was hard to be sure in a Polaroid, she appeared to have no body hair. Theoretically this oddity would be an excellent identity clue. But it was of limited practical value.

‘Electrolysis.’ And we all say, ‘Electrolysis? Everywhere?’ and (she) nods like a doctor confirming a diagnosis and says, ‘Everywhere. My flower is like a polished pearl.’”

That bit has always stuck with me.

There are lots of meals described–including Spenser cooking, and we don’t actually get Susan seeming like an anorexic in this book, with the emphasis on how little she ears.

And then there is the technology: Tapes and Walkman players, VCRs, Fax machines, answering machines, and Spenser’s newest toy: a Car Phone. But aside from all the outdated technology, everything else about the story is pretty timeless.

I looked around me. “This was originally a studio apartment,” I said. “Now ten men live here.”

“Yes, sir.”

I shook my head. I wanted to say something about how this wasn’t the way it should be. But I knew too much and had lived too long to start talking now about “should.” “Send me your huddled masses,” I said. “Yearning to breathe free.”

I really do like this story.
Rating: 9/10

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Thin Air (1995)

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

Re-Read: December 2017

Belson’s wife has disappeared. He first comes to talk to Spenser, because Spenser went though something similar with Susan. However, when Belson is shot, Spenser takes over the case (mind you, Quirk and the BPD are working on the case as well, but Spenser has more leeway and time).

There are parts of this story I remember quite clearly.

The slim muddy trickle that had been leaking down from the roof garden had been joined by other trickles until finally the whole wall was sheeted with dirty water that ran steadily.

Above us I heard the sound of wood twisting. “It’s the goddamned roof garden,” I said to Chollo.

“The roof garden?”

“Yeah. It’s been raining for three days. All the dirt on the roof. It’s soaked full of water. The house is caving in under the weight.”

I remembered those bits quite clearly, because it was such an unusual thing to have happen in a mystery.

There are other parts that struck me as being little different from today.

The signs on the store fronts were in Spanish. The billboards were Spanish. The only English I saw was a sign that read: ELECT TIM HARRINGTON, MAYOR OF ALL THE PEOPLE. I wondered how hard Tim was working for the Hispanic vote.

Slums were immutable. The ethnicities changed, but the squalor and sadness and desperation remained as constant as the movement of the stars.

One of the things I especially liked about this book is Chollo. Spenser met him several books prior, and asks for his help. First, as much as I love Hawk, he wasn’t going to be any help here. Second, although Chollo is like Hawk, he is also clearly not Hawk. It’s another reminder that although Spenser is supposedly on the side of angels, he doesn’t hesitate to call on bad guys for assistance.

I looked at Chollo in the car beside me. He was sitting low in the seat, his arms folded on his chest, his eyes half closed. He’d probably encountered everything Deleon had encountered, and he hadn’t turned out much better, probably. He was a bad guy, but if he told you something you could believe him. He said he’d kill you, he’d kill you. He said he wouldn’t, he wouldn’t. You could trust his word. Which was more than could be said about a lot of people who weren’t supposed to be bad guys. Besides, he was my bad guy.

And he’s amusing. Which one sort of needs to be to hang out with Spenser.

“Vamanos!” Santiago said to the driver.

“Let’s go,” Chollo translated for me.

“I sort of got that one,” I said. “Especially when we started right up.”

Chollo said nothing. But his eyes were amused.

I especially like that it’s made clear that Spanish speakers are not interchangeable in real life.

the concept of Hispanic is a gringo concept. We are not Hispanic, or, as they say on his side of the country, Latino. We are Dominican and Puerto Rican and Mexican. We are like your Indians in the last century.

Much like the previous book when Spenser dealt with Chinese immigrants, it’s made clear that immigrants are not a monolithic population, and that there are sub-populations within sub-populations.

Age-wise, no mention of Vietnam, however he is still talking about Joe Walcott, who retired in 1953. So that’s still putting him in that era.

Joe Walcott had once taught me the same lesson when I was very young, though it took me longer to learn it.

As I mentioned earlier, we’re getting into some of my favorite Spenser stories. Spenser is funny, yet there remains a serious and realistic thread underneath everything.
Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons


Chance (1996)

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

Chance, Audio Version (1996/1997) narrated by Burt Reynolds

And I’ve reached Burt Reynolds narrating, and almost the book where I entered this series.

The criminals in Boston are in a bit of an upheaval, and some of it is Spenser’s fault: He and Hawk took out Tony Marcus several years earlier, and Joe Broz realized his son was never going to be take over his business.

“Broz retired?”

“Not really, but his kid’s a bust, and Vinnie left him, and he’s about seventy, and his heart’s not in it anymore.”

Mind you, Vinnie hasn’t aged even if Joe has.

No more mention of Korea, no more mention of fighting Joe Wolcott.

I think this is the book where he gives in to the idea of Spenser (and Hawk) not aging. Take this passage:

(T)his time when I went into his white office he was an old man. The changes weren’t so much physical as attitudinal. As if he had decided to be old.

Spenser has “decided” not to get old, and so he shan’t for the rest of the series.

I was amused by this passage with and about Hawk.

“How do you know Hawk, Lester?” Susan said. I smiled. I knew she wasn’t making conversation. Susan actually wanted to know.

“Knew Hawk in Cuba,” Lester said.

Susan looked at Hawk.

“Cuba?” she said.

Hawk shrugged. Behind us a maroon Buick Regal pulled away from a pickup zone and fell in behind us.

“What were you doing in Cuba, Lester?”

“Little of this, little of that,” Lester said.

“Oh.”

Susan turned to look at Hawk. The maroon Buick passed us on an open stretch. Usually when that happens the car keeps going and leaves you behind. The Regal pulled in two cars ahead of us and stayed there.

“And you?”

“Same thing,” Hawk said.

I really enjoyed this book, as we’re finally seeing the consequences of actions Spenser and Hawk had taken earlier (ie, Joe Broz and Tony Marcus).

I also liked the fact that almost none of the people Spenser and Hawk interact with are very likable. Even Joe Broz, who is portrayed at least somewhat sympathetically, isn’t particularly likable.

It’s a good mystery and a good story, and I very much enjoyed both it and Burt Reynolds narration.
Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: Phoenix Books

Small Vices (1997)

Small VicesSmall 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

Small Vices, Audible Version (1997) narrated by Burt Reynolds

This 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

Re-Read: January 2018

This is, hands down, one of my favorite Spenser books.

It’s a story that puts Spenser’s complexity right up front, as the client he is hired to clear is an unlikable career criminal.

“Just don’t get romantic on this one,” Jackson said. “Ellis is a bad guy. Maybe he didn’t have much choice about that, but it don’t mean he ain’t bad. You get him loose, you may be doing him a favor. You ain’t helping anyone else. And you probably ain’t helping him. You get him out, he gonna go back.”

But it’s more than that. This is the first book I remember reading where after getting hurt the main character has to take time to recover and rehab. And that rehab is a significant part of this book, just as it would be in real life.

“Might take a while,” Hawk said. “Hill’s a bitch.”

“Here we go,” I said.

We started up. I was half dragging my left leg. Hawk walked slowly beside me. On the right there was a lemon grove, the wet fruit glistening among the green leaves. Nobody seemed to be harvesting it. The fruit was yellow and heavy on the trees and littered the ground, some of it rotting beneath the trees. I was gasping for breath. I looked up and the mailbox was still thirty yards away.

“No reason not to stop and rest,” Hawk said.

I nodded. I looked back. The wet black road surface gleamed. I was twenty yards up the hill and I couldn’t talk. We stood silently together in the steady rain. I was wearing an Oakland A’s baseball cap, and white New Balance sneakers, jeans, and a bright green rain jacket that Susan said was the ugliest garment she’d ever seen legalized. In the left-hand pocket the Detective Special weighed about two hundred pounds.

“How . . . high . . . is . . . this . . . hill?”

“Never measured it,” Hawk said. “Takes me ’bout ten minutes to walk up, five minutes to run.”

“Run?” I said.

Hawk grinned. “See that tree sticking out over the road? Let’s aim for that, when you ready.”

That entire chapter is for me the very heart of what makes Spenser, Spenser. And the heart of his relationships with Hawk. It is also something I remembered and thought about after I broke my ankle and was going through my own rehab: it takes time and work.

That chapter reminded me not to give up. Still does.

But there are so many passages that stick in my mind from this story. Take Hawk’s summation of the case.

“So,” Hawk said, “Alves borrows or steals a car one night, an inconspicuous old pink Caddy. He drives out to Pemberton in his inconspicuous car, where there ain’t no black folks, and the cops pay attention to any that they see. He cruises around in his inconspicuous car until he spots a white girl on a busy street, drags her into his inconspicuous car in front of witnesses, drives her somewhere, takes off her clothes and strangles her, though he maybe doesn’t rape her, dumps her body in the middle of the Pemberton Campus, and rides on back home with her clothes and the aforesaid ligature in his inconspicuous car, so in case the cops stop him he can incriminate himself.”

In the audio version, Burt Reynolds annunciates every instance of in-con-spic-uous, which further emphasizes just how ridiculous the case against Alves is.

When you put everything together, it’s an all but perfect story, of doing something because you said you would, of persisting, and doing what is right, even if it’s not necessarily good.

As far as the narration, Burt Reynolds is so far my favorite narrator of this series. He has Spenser and Hawk pretty perfect, and makes me feel the story.

The editing and production are pretty bad, however. The music is distracting, and in the shift from tape/cd to mps, there are a lot of abrupt and pretty awful cuts. It was a nice idea, but didn’t work out at all.

Another thing to note: Burt Reynold’s voice is deep, and he often elides words together. I like it, except when there is any kind of background noise, in which case it is extremely difficult to catch all the words. Keep that in mind.

But despite those flaws, this remains one of my favorite mysteries and one of my favorite audio books.
Rating: 9/10

Publisher: Phoenix Books

Sudden Mischief (1998)

Another 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.

Audio Version (1998) narration mangled by William Windom

In case the above didn’t clarify, that was terrible.

The narration was so bad that if I wasn’t stubborn I’d have stopped listening after the first chapter. However, I was already reading a couple other books, and since I was walking when I started listening, I was already a couple chapters in before I could stop.

It was so bad that I took an extra walk, just so I could finish listening to the stupid thing.

Possibly should have stopped, even if the extra walk was nice.

What was so terrible? The narrator frequently sounded like he was out of breath. He didn’t stumble over names the way David Dukes did, but I don’t think he read everything quite right either.

But the worst part is what Spenser books are about 90% dialog. When you can’t tell which character is which, that dialog can rapidly become confusing. Consider this passage:

“Or maybe we can discuss this with him when he’s not surrounded by the palace guard,” I said. “Which would be when?” “Ah, there’s the rub,” I said. “He must get laid,” Hawk said. “Haskell?” I said. “Who the hell would come across for Haskell.” “He got a wife?” Hawk said. “Same answer as above,” I said. “Yeah, you probably right. Probably buys it.” “A professional woman,” I said.

That’s kinda how he read the dialog, which meant that the I saids and he saids were muddy and didn’t help that much when it was run together like a single paragraph said by a single speaker.

Of course, this is not one of my favorite Spenser books. It’s primarily about Susan and her ex-husband, and Susan’s issues. I like that Susan gets to work things out, but… she just irritates me.

Despite that, there was a good deal of commentary on life etc.

About halfway through the beer three black men came in together and sat in a booth near the door. None of them looked at us.

“Tall skinny kid with slick hair? Came in with the other two brothers? Name is Ty-Bop Tatum. He’s Tony’s shooter.”

“Ty-Bop?” I said.

“What happens when you got thirteen-year-old girls naming babies,” Hawk said.

Interestingly, the other part of this story is about sexual harassment. It would have been more difficult to read, except that it quickly became clear that the story wasn’t really about Susan’s ex being sued for sexual harassment. So there was not too much of how women are generally treated by men–although we did get a quick visit with Rachel Wallace, which was nice.

“Okay,” I said. “You happen to have a working definition of sexual harassment around?”

Rachel Wallace spoke without inflection like a kid saying the pledge to the flag. “In Massachusetts,” she said, “sexual harassment means sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: (a) submission to or rejection of such advances, requests, or conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment or as a basis for employment decisions.” She took in a big stage breath, let it out, drank some martini, and went on. “Or (b) such advances, requests, or conduct have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or sexually offensive work environment.”

“That’s the law?”

“That’s it in Massachusetts.”

“And you can recite it from memory.”

“I’m not just another pretty face,” she said.

“Well,” I said, “the legislators are clearly a bunch of pickle puss spoilsports.”

“Yes,” she said. “I understand the Iron Maiden is illegal here too.”

Of course there is no reference to hold old Spenser is at this point. I mean, they’re just taunting you at this point.

“How long have we been together?” I said.

“Roughly since the beginning of time,” she said.

“Or longer,” I said.

So: narration was horrific. Story was about Susan and her ex. But, the mystery was good.

Publisher: Phoenix Books

Hush Money (1999)

Spenser 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.

Audio Version (1999/2000) Robert B Parker narrated by Burt Reynolds

WARNING: The production and transfer to digital on this are awful. Truly terrible.

What I listened to was full of clicks and skips and was generally terrible. If I’d have paid money for it instead of borrowing I’d probably have been pissed off. Luckily, I just borrowed it.

This is another narrated by Burt Reynolds, and the same caveats as before apply: he has a deep voice, and he tends to elide some words and phrases, so if there was any background noise, it was sometimes difficult to catch all the words. However, I do enjoy his narration, and he does a good job with the characters and keeping the dialog separate. Which is good, since Spenser books are like 90% dialog.

This is another weirdly timely story. Hawk asks Spenser to look into why the son of his former trainer was denied tenure. (No, really, it works. I promise.) Additionally, Susan asks Spenser to help out a friend who is being stalked.

Why do I like this story? First, we get another glimpse into Hawk’s past, and an explanation as to how Hawk ended up as he did.

Bobby sees something he likes and he takes me on, and when he finds out I’m not living anywhere special he takes me in, and I learn to fight and maybe along the way to use a fork when I’m eating. Stuff like that.

Bobby say to me, ‘I think you need to get a little schooling.’ And I say why, I gonna reason with people in the ring? And Bobby say, ‘You should take an English class and a math class.’ And pretty soon I’m in night school at the community college.

Hawk being who he is, this is a perfect explanation as to how he ended up well-read and more learned than he should have been, with his background as a street-kid and a boxer.

Bobby Nevins was a legend. He’d trained fighters for more than fifty years. All of his fighters could fight. All of them were in shape. None left the ring broke. None were strolling queer street. In a business riddled with charlatans his word was good.

And why Hawk would do anything for Bobby.

But the case quickly turns into a hairball, and soon Spenser is looking into a white power group. That’s where things got a little eerie, considering the current climate in the US. Except, of course, that the racist in the story is actually less awful than some of the racists we’re seeing now.

(A) newsletter titled Alert! which warned against the encroaching mongrelization of the white race, the feminization of the American male, the homosexual assault on marriage, the debasement of American Christianity, and the arrival of the Antichrist. There was a thoughtful discussion, complete with footnotes and bibliography, of a secret plot which festered deep within the power centers of the federal government, abetted by Zionism, whereby this country would be handed over to the One Worlders at the UN.

Honestly, I keep finding parallels in the books to what is going on currently and I find it more than a little terrifying.

“I’m Margaret Dryer,” she said. “I’m the dean of student affairs here. Like many of you present I do not agree with Mr. Quant’s view of the human condition.”

The audience quieted a little as she spoke.

“But I agree with his right to hold those ideas and indeed to espouse them, however repellent I personally find them to be. That is the meaning of free speech, and I hope each and every one of you in the audience will respect Mr. Quant’s right to free speech.

Yet despite everything, there is the reminder that things are not all bad. I particularly liked this passage where Spenser talks to Lee Farrell.

Farrell said. “Lemme tell you what’s bothering you. You’re chasing along after whatever it is that you can’t quite catch, and every gay person you encounter is sleazy, crooked, second-rate, and generally unpleasant.”

“Or so it has seemed,” I said.

“And, being a basically decent guy, despite the smart mouth, you fear that maybe you are prejudiced and it’s clouding your judgment.”

“Also true, except for the smart mouth part.”

“Same thing happens to me with blacks,” Farrell said. “I spend two months on a drug-related homicide and everybody’s black, and everybody’s a vicious sleazebag, and I begin to wonder, is it me?”

“Neither one of us gets to deal with the best parts of a culture,” I said.

“No. We deal with the worst. You got a case involving murder and blackmail, most of the people you meet are going to be scumbags.”

“Regardless of race, creed, or color,” I said. “Or sexual orientation.”

“And not because of race, creed, color, or sexual orientation,” Farrell said.

So this is yet another complex mystery that takes a look at the underside of things, yet despite all the dirt reminds us that many people are good and decent. And sometimes the hero wins.
Rating: 8.5/10

Publisher: Phoenix Books

Hugger Mugger (2000)

Spenser 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.

Audio Version (2000) narrated by Joe Mantegna

Walter Clive has hired Spenser to come down to Georgia to see who has been shooting his horses. What Spenser finds makes no sense: there is no rhyme or reason to the shootings, and the in-house security has seen nothing. Two of the three daughters are a mess, and the two husbands are pieces of work in their own rights.

Then there is a murder Spenser is removed from the case.

There is almost a short story in here, of the case Spenser takes between working in Georgia, and I quite like the resolution, in that Spenser does what he feels is right rather than what he was necessarily hired to do.

Another thing I like about this story is that there isn’t a clean ending–the murderer gets away with it, essentially. That doesn’t happen very often in the Spenser books, but I do like that although everyone knows what has happened, there is no proof, and so no legal case can be made.

No ebook available, and since I listened to it, no quotes for this one.

Joe Mantegna is the narrator from here forward as best as I can tell. I don’t hate him, but I can’t say I love his narration either. I think Burt Reynolds did a better job, even though the digital copies of those books are terrible. So now I have to decide if I want to keep listening or go ahead and switch to reading the rest of the series.

We’ll have to see.
Rating: 7/10

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell Audio


Backstory (2002)

Once 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)

I 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)


 

Bad Business (2004)

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 first, I 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

 

Because it amuses me, here are the various author photos from the backs of the books.



A Robert B. Parker website