Spenser (first name unknown, even to the author) is the Boston private investigator created by Robert B. Parker for his highly successful series of mystery novels. He is the modern evolution of the hard-boiled private eye found in the works of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and others. He describes himself as a "professional thug," and as such, has the ability to move freely among both the law-abiding and law-breaking elements of his world. He has friends on both sides of the law, and often works with them to solve his cases. Unlike his predecessors such as Philip Marlowe, Spenser is not solitary or obsessive. He has an active social life which includes his long-time lover, Susan Silverman. We see him at play as well as at work, and he must deal with mundane, day to day issues, such as his mail or dealing with a rip in his convertable top in addition to the larger issues of right and wrong.
Parker's Spenser novels are narrated in the first person by Spenser himself. This gives us intimate knowledge of his thought processes and emotions, but also tends to give a skewed picture of the world around him. Throughout the novels, his perceptions and beliefs define his environment for us. Other characters appear as he perceives them, rather than in the more subjective light third person narratives offier. Hawk, his long-time friend and the man he often goes to for backup, is a genuinely bad man. He is without remorse and without the many rules of conduct that define most concepts of good and evil. However, when we see him through Spenser's eyes, this aspect tends to be toned down. Spenser sees him as a fellow man of honor, one who won't promise one thing and do another. We should fear him, but Spenser enjoys his company and relies on his help. Similarly, Spenser's lover, Susan, appears in a much softer light through Spenser's perceptions than she might otherwise. She's vain, somewhat pompous, and posesses numerous annoying habits, but these are all forgiven because of Spenser's unconditional love for her. The edge is taken off the annoyances, reducing them to "personality quirks."
Over the course of several novels, we come to know Spenser's history. He is "not of woman born," having instead been delivered via caesarean section while his mother died in childbirth. He was raised in Laramie, Wyoming, in an all-male household. Because his father and two uncles, carpenters all, each took on their share of the housework, he grew up with no concept of a gender-based division of labor. He can build a house or cook a gourmet meal with equal ability. He started college, but never finished, and is largely self-educated. He has always held jobs where some element of violence was necessary or even desired: soldier in Korea, good (which us much different from great) boxer, state trooper working for the DA's office, and finally private detective.
Time and again, we see that Spenser has problems with authority. Quite simply, he does not take orders well. This kept him from making the rank of sergeant in the Army and wound up getting him fired from the Middlesex County DA's office. His only recourse is self employment, but even then his smart mouth and disdain for pompous fools gets him into trouble. He makes jokes at the expense of everyone around him, including his own clients, despite the fact that no one seems to think he's as funny as he does. His sharp wit, surprisingly literate for a man in his profession, is a delight to read. His quips are often coupled with obscure quotes, among his favorites "The ways of the Lord are often dark, but never pleasant." (possibly Theodore Roethke, the original author isn't positively identified in the books) and "My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure" (Tennyson, Sir Galahad)
When Spenser first appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript in 1973, he was 37 years old, the same age Parker was. That would put him in his late 60s by the more recent books, something even Parker admits might be hard to swallow. But in order to remain the human character he is, Spenser does need to age through the series. Parker has solved this by having him age "non-linearly," and simply no longer mentions the detective's age any more, except for Spenser's occasional realization that he cannot do things as fast or easily as he could in his youth. In this vein, Parker can continue his plan to write until he dies, and Spenser can remain middle-aged, yet still keep up with the times.
In 1985, ABC launched a television series based on the Spenser novels called Spenser: For Hire. Starting with a two-hour pilot based on Promised Land, the series ran for three seasons before being cancelled in 1988. Robert Urich took the lead as Spenser, and, for many people, defined the role. TV's Spenser, however, is very different from Robert B. Parker's Spenser. When comparing the two, the author reminds us that "a thing is what it is, and not something else." That is to say, he approached his role as consultant to the television series based on his characters knowing full well that what works well in a mystery novel narrated in the first person, does not necessarily translate to the third person realm of television. Spenser had to become more inoffensive and "Norman Rockwellesque" when he joined ABC's prime time line-up, but Parker steadfastly refused to change his writing to match the series. He continued (and still continues) to write Spenser how he sees him, which is probably a large part of why the novels far outlasted the television series.
Urich went on to play Spenser in four made for tv movies producted by Lifetime and based on novels in the series. These tended to bear little resemblance to the novels beyond the title; in some cases, the stories were butchered so badly the original novel is all but unrecognizable. In 1999, A&E released the their made for tv Spenser movies, with Joe Mantegna in the lead role. Mantegna had actually read the novels (Parker claims people involved with the television series tried, but "their lips got tired"), and worked at trying to bring elements from them back into the scripts. Parker was much more involved with the A&E movies, as screenwriter and even in small acting bits, and they are much truer to the original books.
A complete list of Parker's Spenser novels can be found here.
Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels
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