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BlogMay-June, 2011
Ranking the early Spenser novels

Not long ago the New York Times reported that novelist Ace Atkins will continue Robert B. Parker’s series of Spenser books. I’m not sure how I feel about it. I’ve never read Atkins and the only Spenser novels I’ve read are the first nine, which came out between 1973 and 1982. I’ve enjoyed all of them. There are laughs on nearly every page and deft sensory descriptions. Parker excels at detailing food, clothes, urban landscapes, and interiors. He also has a knack for citing thematically appropriate poetry.

In general, I’m not opposed to one writer using the characters of another. Parker himself did it in 1989 with Poodle Springs, a continuation of Raymond Chandler’s last novel. In 1992, Parker penned Perchance to Dream, a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. With Parker in the news again, I felt it was a suitable time to rank the early Spenser books:

1. God Save the Child (1974). One of Parker’s recurring themes is the incompetence of biological parents. But sometimes his parent-child relationships are one-sided, with children as innocent victims and parents as relentlessly self-absorbed. This book is an exception. And there are sections in it where Parker’s prose rises to poetry.

2. Early Autumn (1980). At times Parker’s Susan Silverman character is implausibly tolerant of everything Spenser does. Not in this novel. There’s also a fantastic three-chapter stretch in which Spenser mentors Paul Giacomin. We see a Spenser we haven’t yet seen: a man who regrets not becoming a father. If I didn’t know any better, I’d guess Parker based Giacomin on Willa Cather’s Paul, from her short story, “Paul’s Case.”

3. The Judas Goat (1978). Seldom is Spenser up against an adversary he can’t handle. The closest I’ve come to wondering whether Spenser would emerge victorious is this novel, the fifth in the series. Parker’s descriptions of London through Spenser’s Bostonian eyes are first-rate.

4. The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). While later books depict Spenser as a modern day knight, this one – the first in the series – reveals Spenser as a fallible rake with a loner’s judgment. He sleeps with the vulnerable 20-year-old coed he’s been hired to protect. Fourteen pages earlier he sleeps with her married mother. That Parker renders these actions plausible – and seamlessly integrates them in the plot – is no easy feat.

5. A Savage Place (1981). The rare Spenser novel with an unhappy ending: TV news reporter Candy Sloan – whom Spenser was hired to protect – ends up dead. I also give Parker credit for letting Spenser cheat on Silverman with Sloan. In previous novels, Spenser did not succumb to temptation. Parker could’ve fallen back on monogamous platitudes but didn’t.

6. Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980). The gold of this novel is Parker’s creation of Wallace, a lesbian-feminist author-activist. For my money, she’s more believable than John Irving’s Jenny Fields in The World According to Garp.

7. Mortal Stakes (1975). If you’re a baseball fan, bump this up the list. It begins with Spenser investigating a Red Sox pitcher for fixing games. The book takes place in an era before ESPN, when baseball teams were more like family businesses than international conglomerates.

8. Promised Land (1976). It’s a fan favorite because of the introduction of Hawk, Spenser’s sidekick. It won the Edgar Award, but for me too much of the dialogue is a gender-bending sideshow: the sort of Mars-Venus, men vs. women tripe to which mediocre comedians and meager minds resort.

9. Ceremony (1982). Ninth in the series, it doesn't stand out from the first eight until its ballsy conclusion. At Spenser's behest, and with Silverman's grudging approval, teenage prostitute April Kyle - whose parents hired Spenser to bring her back - lands a job as a high-priced Manhattan call girl. Weaker authors would've settled for a reunion between Kyle and her parents. Parker made the challenging choice. He usually did. And that's why his books have endured.  

Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari