Spenser

Created by Robert B. Parker (1932-2010)

"I try to be honorable. I know that's embarrassing to hear. It's embarrassing to say. But I believe most of the nonsense that Thoreau was preaching. And I have spent a long time working on getting myself to where I could do it. Where I could live life largely on my own terms."

-- The Promised Land

Love him or hate him, everybody who gives a tinker's cuss about detective fiction seems to have an opinion about Robert B. Parker's immensely popular (and highly influential) series about Boston P.I. SPENSER (no first name).

Including more than a few less than affectionate nods from some of his fellow detective fiction writers. Sour grapes?

The first four books were a slap in the face of a genre that had had largely lost its way. They made a strong impression on those hungry for a successor to the Hammett-Chandler-Macdonald trinity. The books are certainly strong, if somewhat derivative, particularly of Chandler. Not surprising, though -- Parker wrote his doctoral dissertation at Boston U. on the three of them. But they're damn good reads, and introduced an intriguing new gumshoe, one whose success and popularity is still -- at this point forty years on -- reverberating through the genre.

Spenser's a real piece of work. A gourmet cook who pumps iron, an ex-boxer who quotes poetry, a sensitive guy who enjoys getting physical. A guy who goes enjoys a fine gourmet meal and a cold mug of beer, preferably in the same place.And he certainly isn't shy about violence. A true romantic who considers himself a thug for hire and whose closest friend, Hawk, is a former leg breaker for the mob.

Born in Laramie, Wyoming (where Chandler was supposedly conceived), Spenser was delivered by C-section; his mother dying in childbirth. He was raised by his dad and his mother's two brothers, all three of them carpenters. He eventually left, and ended up in Boston as a private detective. Along the way, he was a boxer, a serviceman in Korea, and a Massachusetts State Trooper, assigned to the DA's office in Suffolk County. But he had (as he puts it) a bit of problem with authority. Or, as his pal Captain Healy of the State police puts it in Bad Business: "they canned your ass for being an insubordinate fucking hot dog."

And then, in God Save the Child, he met Susan Silverman, and detective fiction was never the same.

Eventually, Parker's success (books on the bestsellers list and a hit TV show) and his own literary pretensions got in the way. After the overblown and over-long A Catskill Eagle, several of the books in the late eighties were little more than padded novellas with phoned in plots, and in the nineties, Spenser, always a bit smug, became an almost unbearable, infuriatingly self-satisfied wiseass, while his pithy back-and-forth with Susan -- and the appearance of Pearl the Wonder Dog -- had even devoted fans wondering if Parker had lost it.

And yet, and yet..

Even in the weakest novels, there were moments of greatness, and flashes of the old grit and wit. And when Parker and Spenser were hitting their stride, there weren't -- and still aren't --many that could touch them. As Frederick Nolan said, in 100 Great Detectives, "Spenser is. Take it or leave it." And Parker was such a great stylist, that even a mediocre Spenser novel is a joy to read... As one friend put it, "the cat had flow."

* * * * *

The inevitable television show, Spenser for Hire, was, however, disappointing. Robert Urich, though likable enough as Dan Tanna in VEGA$, was woefully miscast. In the shows, Spenser was just another TV dick with a cool car, more smug than thug; only slightlymore full of himself than most, and his deep fondness for literature was reduced to a few quips nabbed from quotation books. Susan was a cardboard character, easily swapped out for another actress for one season, as though even the producers thought nobody would notice. And every now and then, an attempt was made to incorporate the novel's sensibilities into the series, usually with dreadful results.

One of the more ambitious episodes, from the third (and final) season, "Child's Play," scripted by executive producer Yates, had Spenser in pursuit of a hit man. In the course of the inevitable gun battle, Spenser shoots and kills an innocent boy. The issues of gun control and escalating urban violence are touched upon. They're just not touched upon enough to matter. And of course, Spenser walks. And the next week, he was blasting away as usual.

"I had killed a child and it would be a long time before the pain and hurt would go away. Not now, but later, in some quiet place I would lay down my gun and grieve for the child who'd never grow old."

Really?

Still, there were some nice touches. Spenser's "neat, TV dick car" was a dark, ivy green 1966 Mustang, and the on-location shooting in Boston was a nice change of pace. The writing, when it wasn't trying so hard to be IMPORTANT, had a nice, Mannix-like vibe to it. And then there was Hawk.

The one thing the shows got right was Hawk. Big, black and menacing, he had more edge in one episode than Urich had in a season. After the series ended in 1988, Avery Brooks reprised his role of Hawk in A Man Called Hawk in 1989, a disappointing use of a good actor and a great role.

As well, the "Play It Again, Sammy" (January 30, 1988) and "McAllister" (April 3, 1988) episodes served as pilots for proposed spin-off series, but neither was picked up. Sammy, played by Sal Viscuso, was a con-man turned sleazy private eye (written by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin) and McAllister, was a federal prosecutor (Steve Hattman and William Robert Yates wrote that one).

A few years later, Spenser For Hire was brought back in four full-length TV movies for Lifetime, reuniting the original cast, but they only served to tarnish Spenser's television image further. This go 'round, they didn't even bother to film in Boston, settling for Toronto instead.

In the late nineties, Parker signed a project deal with A&E to do several more Spenser movies, as well as several films based on his Jesse Stone novels, about a reformed alcoholic LAPD officer who becomes the chief of police for a small island off the coast of Massachusets. The Jesse Stone films, starring Tom Selleck, fared far better than the three Spenser TV movies starring Joe Mantegna. Mantegna was potentially a good choice -- he certainly had more acting chops than the affable, but miscast future Love Boat captain Robert Urich. According to Steven Bucci on rec.arts.mystery "[Parker] said that while originally he couldn't see Spenser being played by Joe Mantegna, he was truly pleased with the final results. He said Joe Mantegna did a very good job in the role, that he felt the movie proved to be the best version of Spenser to date."

I'm less convinced, mostly because despite Mantegna's skills, the scripts were so lameot made barely any difference at all. Mantegna may have been marginally better than Urich, but by that point, who cared? And while Mantegna looked like he might have taken a punch or two in his life, didn't anyone notice he was, uh, short?

Fortunately though, through it all, Parker kept writing the Spenser series, and the last few years saw him not just putting Spenser through his paces, but actually upping the ante. The last ten or so years saw Parker's productivity increasing, and the writing got sharper and tighter, for the most part, as though being freed from the yoke of television production allowed Parker to refocus on his writing. Certainly, there was a sense of revitalization going on, and if Parker didn't always reach the heights of the early novels, Spenser was nonetheless active and vital once again, ticking off bad guys and fighting the good fight, entertaining his multitudes of fans.

Whether his detractors (and they're numerous) admit it or not , Parker was one of good ones; certainly one of the most popular and influential private eye writers of all time, and has come closer than most of being spoken of in the same breath as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald, Spillane and a few others. Certainly few authors have managed to match the opening salvo of his first four books. And Parker continued delivering the goods right up until the end: in the Spenser series, in several excellent non-series thrillers (including a YA Spenser novel). At a time when most authors would be slowing down and resting on their laurels, he actually picked up the pace, creating and establishing three new series, one featuring the afore-mentioned Jesse Stone, another revolving around a female private eye from Boston, Sunny Randall and a very popular Western series featuring town-taming guns-for-hire Hitch and Cole.

Parker made it look effortless and easy, but trust me -- writing that well isn't easy.

THE EVIDENCE

  • "If it's not worth fighting about, then it's not worth a lot of mouth."

-- a high school age Spenser tries to figure it out in Chasing the Bear (2009)

  • "It was like talking to a pancake."

-- Widow's Walk

  • In Bad Business, a client Spenser, Hawk and Vinnie are protecting, gets frustrated by the guys' smug confidence in each other and, exasperated, turns to Susan, and asks "What is this... Some sort of secret society?"
    .
    "Yes, that's exactly what it is. Full of unsaid rules and regulations which none of them will ever admit to knowing," Susan replies, and when asked who else is a member, starts to list them:
    .
    "Okay," Susan said, "Well, there's some cops. Quirk, Belson, a detective named Lee Farrell; the state police person, Healy... and a man named Chollo from Los Angeles, and a man named Tedi Sapp from Georgia. Bobby Horse, the Native American gentleman." Hawk adds "Bernard J. Fortunato, the 'little dude' from Vegas."

  • "You love her... more than I ever seen anybody love anything."

-- Hawk summarizes Spenser's relationship with Susan in Now and Then.

  • "There's legal and illegal. I make part of my living from that fact."

-- Silent Night (was that Brann... or Parker?)

  • Spenser describes a high-rise office with "a panoramic view of Boston Harbor and, on a particularly cleart day, probably a good chunk of Newfoundland."

-- Silent Night (again, was that Brann... or Parker?)

UNDER OATH

  • "Last week I had the opportunity to spend a good deal of time listening to some of the best contemporary crime writers discuss their work at a conference in the Bahamas. Parker's Spenser novels were mentioned repeatedly as a major influence on many of these writers (it was also frequently stated, to be fair, that the early books were far superior to the more recent ones.) My opinion is that the countless imitations of the Spenser books--and there are many--have tarnished our perception of the originals. We're tired of Spenser's sons so we're tired of Spenser. Put it in another context: a young person looking at Bullitt or The French Connection today might yawn at "just another car chase," but those car chases were groundbreaking and mind-blowing at the time of their release."

-- George Pelecanos, from a post to Rara-Avis, dated12/14/2000

  • "It's hard to believe such sharp and smart books like God Save the Child, Mortal Stakes and Early Autumn could inspire such a dumb, pedestrian, cliche-ridden show. I mean, a black classic Mustang, and he lives in a firehouse? Ah, well, at least it wasn't a red Ferrari and a Hawaiian beachhouse...Mind you, some of the later Spenser books ain't no great thang, either...kill the stupid dog, and let Hawk and Susan elope!"

-- Duke Seabrook

  • "Several years ago I asked Robert B. Parker, creator of the novels from which (Spenser for Hire) sprang, who he would ideally have cast in the series. He said, "Robert Mitchum, but it would have had to have been done 30 years ago." He further went on to assert that Avery Brooks' portrayal of Hawk was dead on, and that star Robert Urich's only real flaw was that he wasn't about 30 pounds heavier. (It might have been that Parker wasn't 30 pounds lighter, but let's not go there.)"

-- Thane Tierney, from the liner notes to Crimestoppers: TV's Greatest P.I. Themes

  • "I wonder if there's anybody out there as tired as I am of reading gripes about Parker's novels. If you don't like him, don't read him. I don't mind wearing out my declining eyesight skimming through effusive praise of Carroll John Daly or any number of, ah, writers of dubious stylistic value. They've made their contributions to the genre and deserve a little overpraise every now and then. Nobody ever seems to cut Parker any slack, even though he kept the private eye novel going through the roughest period of its history, never mind that he has influenced several of today's heroes of the hardboiled and created what has become a genre staple -- the sociopathic sidekick. Okay, so he insists on sticking in all that crap about Susan Silverman and the dog and he allows his hero a smugness that can set one's teeth on edge. With all of that, his books -- and this year he's published at least three -- are never less than entertaining and, every now and then, deliver a scene or set piece (usually a confrontation with a powerful adversary) that reminds you of what drew you to crime fiction in the first place."

-- Dick Lochte on Rara-Avis, dated 11/11/2001

  • "I stopped reading Parker over a decade ago. However, last year I read Perish Twice in preparation for writing a "things to do this week" blurb for a local booksigning of his... but I was reminded of just how readable Parker is. The man's got flow. (And) I respect the man's major contribution to the genre. As Dick noted, the man kept it going during a pretty bleak time for PI fiction, and he did it with style. Plus I recognize he set the standards for much of the PI fiction I like and do still read. He wrote the rules for the contemporary PI genre. And, as Dick also noted, his splitting the PI into two persons, one honorable, one psycho, was absolutely brilliant."

-- Mark Sullivan on Rara-Avis, dated 11/11/2001

  • "Robert B. Parker, through his Spenser novels, is responsible for my writing career. Back in high school, I wanted to be a comic book artist, and I spent a lot of time writing and drawing my own comics. The "writing" part was only because I had no one else to write them. If I wanted to draw comics, I had to write them, too. Then one night in 1987, in my sophomore year of high school, I happened to catch an episode Spenser: For Hire, and I noticed the "Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker" line in the opening credits. I think around that time, there was also an article in TV Guide written by Parker, in which he talked about the differences between his Spenser, and the TV Spenser. And I guess right here is as good a place as any to say that Robert Urich is twice the Spenser that Joe Mantegna could ever hope to be. And after Avery Brooks' performance, no one should ever even attempt to play Hawk....Anyway, this got me into a library, where I checked out Ceremony, my first Spenser novel. This literally changed my life. Up until that point, novels were frequently dull books they made you read in English class. Things you suffered through, wishing you were reading comics. But Parker's novels opened my ears, and mind. I realized that novels don't have to be stuffy and boring. These books were fun. And funny! I laughed out loud - and still do."

-- Jay Faerber, creator of Dodge's Bullets

  • "(Early Autumn)... is Robert B. Parker's Captains Courageous. It taught me a crime novel could be about more than thugs and ripoffs."

-- Robert Crais

  • "One of the great series in the history of the American detective story."

-- The New York Times

..

NOVELS

SHORT STORIES & OTHER BITS'N'PIECES

See also Spenser's Shorts

  • "Surrogate" (1982, also New Crimes #3)

The only "real" short story in the bunch.

A real rarity, a short story done in audio only, used as a promotional piece by AudiobooksToday. Susan's friend "Bob" wants Spenser, a "real detective," to narrate the audio version of his story.

TELEVISION

  • PROMISED LAND (1985, ABC)
    2-hour pilot for series
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker

  • SPENSER FOR HIRE (1985-88, ABC)
    64 one hour episodes
    Based on characters created by Robert B. Parker
    Writers:
    Daniel Freudenberger, Robert Hamilton, Stephen Hattman, Robert B. and Joan H. Parker, John Wilder, William Robert Yates, Lee Goldberg, William Rabkin, Howard Gordon, Alex Gansa, David Carren, Steve Hattman, Michael Fisher, Bob Bielak, Juanita Bartlett
    Directors:
    Richard Colla, Harvey Hart, Winrich Kolbe, Virgil Vogel, David M. Whorf, William Wiard, John Wilder
    Developed for television by John Wilder
    Consultant:
    Robert B. Parker
    Executive Producers:
    John Wilder, Juanita Bartlett, Stephen Hattman, William Robert Yates
    Theme by Steve Dorff & Friends
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    and Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Also starring
    Barbara Stock, Ron McLarty, Richard Jaekel, Carolyn McCormick
    Guest Stars:
    Chuck Connors, Spaulding Gray, Lauren Holly, Jimmy Smits, D.B. Sweeney, Jay Thomas, Sal Viscuso
  • Season One...Buy on DVD.
  • "Spenser: For Hire" (September 20, 1985)
  • "No Room at the Inn" (September 27, 1985)
  • "The Choice" (October 4, 1985)
  • "Discord in A Minor" (October 11, 1985)
  • "Original Sin" (October 15, 1985)
  • "Children of a Tempest Storm" (October 22, 1985)
  • "The Killer Within" (October 29, 1985)
  • "Autumn Thieves" (November 12, 1985)
  • "Blood Money" (November 19, 1985)
  • "Resurrection" (December 6, 1986)
  • "Internal Affairs" (December 31, 1985)
  • "Death by Design" (January 7, 1986)
  • "A Day's Wages" (January 14, 1986)
  • "A Madness Most" Discreet (January 21, 1986)
  • "Brother to Dragons" (February 4, 1986)
  • "When Silence Speaks" (February 11, 1986)
  • "In a Safe Place" (February 18, 1986)
  • "Angel of Desolation" (March 4, 1986)
  • "She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not" (March 11, 1986)
  • "At the River's Edge" (March 25, 1986)
  • "Rage" (April 1, 1986)
  • "Hell Hath No Fury" (April 8, 1986)

  • Season Two
  • "Widow's Walk" (September 27, 1986)*
  • "An Eye for an Eye" (October 4, 1986)
  • "Rockabye Baby" (October 18, 1986)
  • "White Knight" (October 25, 1986)
  • "And Give Up Show Biz" (November 1, 1986)
  • "The Long Hunt" (November 8, 1986)
  • "Home is the Hero" (November 22, 1986)
  • "One if by Land, Two if by Sea" (November 29, 1986)
  • "Shadowsight" (December 13, 1986)
  • "The Hopes and Fears" (December 20, 1986)
  • "Among Friends" (January 7, 1987)
  • "I Confess" (January 17, 1987)
  • "Murder and Acquisitions" (January 24, 1987)
  • "Personal Demons" (February 7, 1987)
  • "Mary Hamilton" (February 14, 1987)
  • "Trial and Error" (February 21, 1987)
  • "One for My Daughter" (March 7, 1987)
  • "My Brother's Keeper" (March 14, 1987)
  • "The Road Back" (March 21, 1987)
  • "If You Knew Sammy..." (April 15, 1987)
  • "The Man Who Wasn't There" (May 2, 1987)
  • "The Song of Orpheus" (May 9, 1987)

  • Season Three
  • "The Homecoming" (September 27, 1987)*
  • "My Enemy, My Friend" (October 4, 1987)
  • "Heart of the Matter" (October 11, 1987)
  • "On the Night He Was Betrayed" (November 1, 1987)
  • "Sleepless Dreams" (November 8, 1987)
  • "Consilum Abditum" (November 15, 1987)
  • "Thanksgiving" (November 29, 1987)
  • "Gone Fishin'" (December 6, 1987)
  • "Child's Play" (December 20, 1987)
  • "Skeletons in the Closet" (January 3, 1988)
  • "The Siege" (January 10, 1988)
  • "Arthur's Wake" (January 16, 1988)
  • "To the End of the Line" (January 23, 1988)
  • "Play It Again, Sammy" (January 30, 1988)
  • "The Big Fight" (February 6, 1988)
  • "Substantial Justice" (March 5, 1988)
  • "Company Man" (March 12, 1988)
  • "Water Colors" (March 19, 1988)
  • "Hawk's Eyes" (March 26, 1988)
  • "McAllister" (April 3, 1988)
  • "Haunting" (May 7, 1988)

TELEVISION MOVIES

  • After the "hit" series was cancelled, ABC/Lifetime produced four full-length movies starring the late Robert Urich and Avery Brooks reprising their roles as the wisecracking Boston detective and his bad-ass sidekick, taking their plots -- for once -- directly from the best-selling novels. Included in this boxed set are "Ceremony," "Pale Kings and Princes," "The Judas Goat" and "A Savage Place."

    In 1999, A&E took a whack at the franchise, as well, casting Joe Mantegna for three further movies, also all based on Parker novels.

  • SPENSER: CEREMONY...Buy this video....Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    Teleplay: Joan Parker and Robert B. Parker, based on his novel "Ceremony"
    Director: Andrew Wild
    Producer: Ray Sager
    Creative Consultant: Joan Parker
    Executive Producers: Peter R. Simpson, Fred B. Tarter, AlanWagner
    A Norstar Entertainment Production
    Filmed in Toronto
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    Also starring
    J. Winston Carroll, Dave Nichols, Tanya Allen,Jefferson Mappen, Lynne Cormack, Lili Francks, Alexa Gilmour, Janet Bailey

  • SPENSER: PALE KING AND PRINCES...Buy this video....Buy this on DVD
    (1993, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Screenplay by Robert P. Parker & Joan H. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Barbara Williams as Susan Silverman
    Also starring Alex Carter, Matthew Ferguson

  • SPENSER: THE JUDAS GOAT....Buy this on DVD
    (1994, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    and Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman
    It's bad enough trying to pretend Toronto is Boston, but to replace Montreal with Ottawa? Ughhhh!!!!

  • SPENSER: A SAVAGE PLACE....Buy this on DVD
    (1995, Lifetime)
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Written by Carol Daley, Donald Martin, Monte Stettin and Nahum Tate  
    Directed by Joseph L. Scanlan
    Starring Robert Urich as SPENSER
    with Avery Brooks as HAWK
    Wendy Crewson as Susan Silverman
    and Cynthia Dale as Candy Sloane
    Also starring
    Tyrone Berskin, Neil Crone, Richard Fitzpatrick, Jerry Levitan, Douglas Miller, Daniel Parker, Ross Pelty, Natalie Radford, Michael Ricupero, David Spooner and Hayley Tyson

  • SMALL VICES...Buy this video
    (July 18, 1999, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Robert Markowitz
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    with Shiek Mahmud-Bey as HAWK
    and Marcia Gay Harden as Susan
    Also starring
    Eugene Lipinski
    Cameo by Robert B. Parker as CIA Agent Ives, and his son, Dan Parker as Lee Farrell.

  • THIN AIR...Buy this video
    (September 2000, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Premiere: September 12, 2000
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Directed by Robert Mandel
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    and Marcia Gay Harden as Susan
    Also starring
    Eugene Lipinski, Jon Seda, Yancy Butler
    Cameos by Robert B. Parker as a sleeping cop; his son Dan as a priest; and Joan as a doctor.

  • WALKING SHADOW...Buy this video
    (2001, A&E)
    2 hour made-for-television movie
    Premiere: August 26, 2001
    Based on the novel by Robert B. Parker
    Teleplay by Robert B. Parker and Joan Parker
    Directed by Po-Chih Leong
    Executive Producer: Michael Brandman
    Co-executive Producer: Joe Mantegna
    Producer: Steven Brandman
    Associate Producers: Joan Parker, John Albanis
    Starring Joe Mantegna as SPENSER
    and Marcia Gay Harden as Susan
    and Ernie Hudson as HAWK
    Also starring
    Eric Roberts, Christopher Lawford, Christina Moore, Tamlyn Tomita, Mackenzie Gray, Au, Ronin Wong, Marcus Sim, Chang Tseng, Henry Mah
    Mantegna and Harden are back as Spenser and Susan, and Ernie "Ghostbusters" Hudson takes over as Hawk. Shot in Vancouver. Director Po-Chih Leong is a British-born Hong Kong horror specialist. Lots of gimmicky (and pointless) special effects in this one. Painful -- possibly the worst Spenser TV movie yet. And the last.

ALSO OF INTEREST

  • The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage, and Urban Reality: A Study of the Private Eye in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald (1971; by Robert B. Parker)
    Parker's doctoral thesis.

  • Spenser's Boston (1988; Spenser's Boston)
    Japanese Spenser fan Kasho Kumagai's loving homage to Spenser's hometown includes this short piece by Parker, which features Spenser and Susan showing Rachel Wallace some local sites of interest.

  • The Robert B. Parker Companion (2005)....Buy this book
    Edited by Dean
    James and Elizabeth Foxwell
    Everything you always wanted to know about Robert B. Parker's novels -- from Spenser to Jesse Stone to Sunny Randall -- but were afraid to ask. Includes plot summaries, cast of characters, Boston locations, a omprehensive biography of Parker, his stand-alone fiction, memorable quotes, an inclusive bibliographyand a new interview with Parker himself.

  • "Spenser" (2009, The Line-Up)
    Not really a short story -- more a vignette of Susan and Spenser being interviewed by a Harvard professor friend of Susan's for a book called Men Who Dare.

RELATED LINKS

Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Gerald So and Bob Ames for kicking up a bit of enlightenment on this one, and keeping me posted on all manner of things Spenserian. Also, much thanks to our automotive expert, Jason, for helping us spot the Mustang.


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