Tuesday, October 12, 2010
10 on Tuesday -- Devoted to Spenser
I just finished Painted Ladies, one of the Spenser mysteries published after author Robert Parker's death, and I really enjoyed it because I have always been a little in love with Spenser. However the quality of this series varies wildly, and if you're not a fan, I fear you may pick up one of the ooky ones and not give the good ones a shot. So here, as a public service, are the 10 best books in the series, in order and by my personal proclamation. (After all, it is my blog.)
1) The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). The first book in the series. From Shelfari: "For Spenser, that most unorthodox of private detectives, no case is ever straightforward and the theft of a 14th-century illuminated manuscript proves no exception. His investigation soon leads him into organized crime, dope-pushing, theft, radical politics, adultery and murder." This book is important not only because it introduces us to our hero, but because it gives us a glimpse of him pre-Susan Silverman. Susan is his great love, a Harvard-educated shrink, and I'd say that loyal Spenser fans are split on her except for the fact that we all seem to kinda hate her. Think of her as Boston's answer to Yoko Ono.
2) Mortal Stakes. Book 3. One of my favorite Spensers. One of my favorite mysteries. One of my favorite baseball books. One of my favorite books -- PERIOD. "Everybody loves a winner, and the Rabbs are major league. Marty is the Red Sox star pitcher, Linda the loving wife. She loves everyone except the blackmailer out to wreck her life. Is Marty throwing fast balls or throwing games? It doesn't take long for Spenser to link Marty's performance with Linda's past...or to find himself trapped between a crazed racketeer and an enforcer toting an M-16. America's favorite pastime has suddenly become a very dangerous sport, and one wrong move means strike three, with Spenser out for good!" There's a lot of action and thrills in this book, which I admit I enjoy, but it's about much more. We're introduced in this book to Spenser's code of conduct, what makes him different (and better) than many of good guys he encounters. It's about who we love and we choose our partners and why we stay loyal or stray. Plus Spenser takes us to Fenway in this book, and his love of baseball is palpable. It's the hot dogs, peanuts and beer and more. It's sitting in a legendary old ball park watching a game that has changed little over the decades and can easily become a metaphor for what's good and bad about us.
3) Looking for Rachel Wallace. Book 6. "When Spenser accepts a job as a bodyguard for a beautiful lesbian activist, he gets in way over his head." This book is very popular with fans of the series. While I didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much Mortal Stakes, it's still one of my favorites. First of all, Parker writes so evocatively about Boston -- even the snowstorms. Secondly, it further illustrates how Spenser's personal sense of responsibility sets him apart from other lawmen (both police and private). He's a complicated, sensitive tough guy, as capable of making mistakes and being humble as he is of derring do and smart-ass remarks (a Spenser specialty).
4) Early Autumn. Book 7. "A bitter divorce is only the beginning. First the father hires thugs to kidnap his son. Then the mother hires Spenser to get the boy back. But as soon as Spenser senses the lay of the land, he decides to do some kidnapping of his own. With a contract out on his life, he heads for the Maine woods, determined to give a puny 15 year old a crash course in survival and to beat his dangerous opponents at their own brutal game." In this book we meet Paul Giaccomin, the son Spenser never had. It's their relationship, more than the action, that makes this book memorable. There are no easy answers -- not in Paul's life, not in real life, either, and it's refreshing to read a book that understands that.
5) Ceremony. Book 9. "Spenser's out to make war, not love, as he goes after Boston's entire X-rated industry. Pretty teenager April Kyle has disappeared into the city's darkest underworld, and to rescue her, Spencer pits muscle and wit against bullets and bullies." First of all, I like this book because Susan is actually useful instead of annoying. Secondly, it looks at the damage done to children in "good homes," and shows how far we'll go and where we'll turn to find acceptance if we're not getting it from our bio family.
6) Crimson Joy. Book 15. "They call him the "Red Rose Killer" because he leaves one on the body of each woman he kills. But then the madman's eyes turn to Susan Silverman, and Spenser is on the case. For when Susan's life is in danger, Spenser becomes a hard-fisted, unstoppable locomotive--determined to bring the criminal to justice no matter what the odds!" This is an exciting book because the villain of the piece is just plain nuts, and his insanity brings an unpredictability that frustrates the logical Spenser. Adding to the suspense is that the loony's target is Spenser's own lovely Susan. There's less typical wise-cracking and banter in this book, but I thought that rang true. Spenser and Hawk are more emotionally involved with this case than with almost any other in the series.
7) Small Vices. Book 24. "Ellis Alves is no angel. But his lawyer says he was framed for the murder of college student Melissa Henderson...and asks Spenser for help. From Boston's back streets to Manhattan's elite, Spenser and Hawk search for suspects, including Melissa's rich-kid, tennis-star boyfriend. But when a man with a .22 puts Spenser in a coma, the hope for justice may die with him." Of course, Spenser won't die. This is only Book #24. But being seriously wounded, and vulnerable, changes our hero in profound ways. It's the impact his shooting has on his relationships with Susan and Hawk, how he learns to accept their love and support during his convalescence, that makes this book very special.
8) Sudden Mischief. Book 25. "Susan's ex is quaking in his boots... Susan Silverman's ex doesn't call himself "Silverman" anymore--he's changed his name to "Sterling." And that's not the only thing that's phony about him. A do-gooding charity fundraiser, he's been accused of sexual harassment by no less than four different women. And not long after Spenser starts investigating, Sterling is wanted for a bigger charge: murder." So we learn more about Dr. Silverman's past in this book, and it her inner life isn't always as beautiful as her appearance. At times we want to scream, "Physician, heal thyself!" Still, it's interesting to watch Spenser deal with her when she's under stress. At times, she's a total and complete bitch and he not only acknowledges it, he accepts it. Not because he has the patience of Job -- though he must, risking all to help her ex as he does -- but because he loves her and is committed to their relationship. He and Susan are it in for the long haul and, even without the formal vows, that means "for better or worse."
9) Back Story. Book 30. "An unsolved thirty-year-old-murder draws the victim's daughter out of the shadows for overdue justice--and lures Spenser into his own past, old crimes, and dangerous lives." Just as Mortal Stakes is enhanced by Robert Parker's love of baseball, Back Story is made immeasurably more believable and moving by Parker's love of dogs. The death of Spenser and Susan's baby, Pearl the Wonder Dog, is handled beautifully. Humanizing our hero even more is the return of Paul Giaccommin.
10) Cold Service. Book 32. "When his buddy Hawk is beaten within an inch of his life, Spenser infiltrates a ruthless mob in the name of friendship--and revenge." I'm ambivalent about this one. It's an important book in the series because it explores the profound bond between Hawk and Spenser. However, by this book, a lot of the wisecracking seemed stale, and I was really annoyed by how old the characters had to be by now. Remember, Godwulf Manuscript was published in the mid-1970s. Still, this series was primarily about the relationships, and viewed through that prism, this one pays off. Think of it as the sister to the superior Small Vices.