CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 6, No. 30
A NEW SPENSER NOVEL AND THE NEW SPENSER DVD BOXED SET
REMIND US WHO AMERICA'S REIGNING SLEUTH IS TODAY
Spenser never wears out
his welcome with fans
By RON MILLER
This is definitely the summer of Spenser, the tough, but sensitive Boston private eye with no first name, created some 33 years ago by Robert B. Parker.
There's the new Spenser novel, "Cold Service" (Putnam, $24.95), and then there's the long-awaited debut of Spenser on home video with "Spenser: The Movie Collection" (Ryko, $40-$50), a boxed set of four "Spenser: For Hire" made-for-TV movies that ABC turned out for the Lifetime cable network more than decade ago.
For that matter, it hasn't been too bad a year altogether for author Parker, whose second, much newer male crime-fighting hero, Jessie Stone, came to TV successfully in the person of Tom Selleck early this year in the CBS film based on Parker's latest Stone mystery, "Stone Cold."
Spenser is the ultimate development of the Hammett-Chandler "hardboiled" private eye, brought up to date for a new generation of readers who are mostly female or well-educated males "in touch" with their feminine side. Spenser is rugged, rough and tough, but he also does a little gourmet cooking, has an excellent background in poetry and, despite all the tasty offers, remains a one-woman man.
Spenser is cool with black people, Latinos, gays, lesbians and even a few Italian mobster-types. In fact, he's so cool that, in "Cold Service," he even hangs out with The Gray Man, a hit man character who shot him up so badly some 20 or so novels ago that it was nip and tuck for Spenser for at least half the book.
Spenser is probably the wittiest private eye there ever was. I truly believe he could have retired from sleuthing long ago and still made out as a stand-up comic, even in hip Boston. Parker also makes Spenser's adventures incredibly reader-friendly. The chapters are short, so you feel like you're falling through the book instead of slogging through it. The temptation to knock off another five or six chapters before you turn out the light is hard to resist, even if you have to go to the bathroom real bad.
In "Cold Service," Spenser mostly plays the role of helpmate. The book starts with Spenser's closest pal, the mysterious black gunman known as Hawk, getting shot up by a bunch of Ukranian gangsters. Hawk's in even worse trouble than Spenser was when The Gray Man plugged him. Two rifle bullets passed right through his chest, barely missing heart, lungs and spine. The hit on Hawk was ordered because he was protecting a man the Eastern European gangsters wanted to put out of business. As a result, the Ukranians nsuff the guy and his entire family, except for a newborn baby.
The rest of the book is about Hawk's comeback from his near-fatal injuries and his crusade, with Spenser's help, to kill the four assassins who did the job and also get the gangster boss who ordered the murders. Along the way, they hope to raise enough money to guarantee the surviving infant will have a future someday.
It takes a long time for Hawk and Spenser to track everybody down, line up all the players and do the deed. When it's finally done, it seems a bit anti-climactic. But you don't read a Spenser novel to wallow in the final battle with the bad guys. Instead, you read about Spenser because you love the guy and the way he handles himself in this cruel modern world of ours.
Personally, I can't get enough of the easy dialogue between Spenser and Hawk. For instance, in the new book, they're heading for the home of a guy named Brock Rimbaud who's married to the sexy daughter of a black racketeer. They are musing over the guy's name, which sounds made up to them.
"Don't sound like no brother," Hawk says.
"Maybe he changed his name," says Spenser. "Trying to pass."
"What you think his real name is?" Hawk goes on.
"Old Black Joe?" asks Spenser, looking for Hawk's reaction.
"Mostly they ain't naming us that no more," says Hawk.
Too subtle for you? Gee, too bad. I love it. They rag on each other that way all the time. Hawk's already one-up on Spenser anyway. He has introduced him as "my assistant" at least once already.
If you want to start reading Spenser, I suggest you go all the way back to Parker's first Spenser novel, "The Godwulf Manuscript," published 32 years ago in 1973. There's a reason: Parker connects all the novels together in convoluted ways. That's why you're way behind if you don't know where The Gray Man and some of the other recurring characters fit into the canon. Spenser now has a vast armada of supporting players, like Vinnie the Thug, who pop up now and then. Heck, Spenser himself even pops up in some of the Jessie Stone novels. All Parker's mystery novels take place in the same time, generally the same corner of America and with many of the same people moving in and out of the storylines.
Spenser's TV life began about a decade after his literary life started. ABC brought "Spenser: For Hire" to the screen as a weekly series starring Robert Urich as Spenser and Avery Brooks as Hawk. It lasted a couple of seasons, highly praised by critics, but not attracting huge viewer numbers. At the peak of its popularity, "Hawk" earned himself a spinoff series that also didn't go very long.
Then ABC began making feature-film length versions of Parker's novels for the Lifetime cable network, repeating the films later on ABC. That went on for awhile, then the A&E network persuaded Parker to go for a new package of Spenser movies featuring Joe Mantegna as the Boston P.I. (Urich was in failing health and eventually died. Mantegna made only a few films in the gumshoe role.)
So far, neither the original "Spenser: For Hire" series nor "Hawk" have come to home video. The Mantegna films also are unavailable. But the four highest-rated of the Urich-Brooks films now are available in a fine boxed set. They are: "The Judas Goat," "A Savage Place," "Pale Kings and Princes" and "Ceremony."
Though Urich and Brooks remained in their original roles during the first wave of "Spenser" interest on TV, the producers often changed the actresses who played Susan Silverman, Spenser's psychiatrist girl friend. Barbara Stock was the original Susan--and many feel she was the best. Barbara Williams played the role in "Ceremony" and "Pale Kings and Princes" while Canadian star Wendy Crewson took over the part in the other two Canadian-made Spenser films in the boxed set.
Author Parker and his wife, Joan, were very active in the production of these Spenser movies, working on the scripts and helping with production chores.
Spenser never seems to age, but we know he must be around Parker's age, which is about 73. Of course, they don't want you to know that. I mean, how many readers would still line up to buy the next Spenser novel if they thought he was a sort of male Miss Marple, still eking out a living long after his eligibility for Social Security?
Well, I guess I would, but then I'm kind of fanatic, in case you hadn't noticed.
©2005 by Ron Miller. The book cover is courtesy of Putnams. The DVD cover is courtesy of Ryko. This column first posted July 26, 2005.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine and teaches classes in mystery for the Academy of Lifelong Learning at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
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