Mass Market Paperback, 204 pg.
Read: January 25-27, 2020
Driving back to Boston, I thought about my two retainers in the same week. Maybe I’d buy a yacht. On the other hand maybe it would be better to get the tear in my convertible roof fixed. The tape leaked.
I came to this series about thirteen (possibly fourteen) years late, but to be fair, I would have been thirteen (possibly fourteen) when I started reading it. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Spenser without having spent some time with Leroy Brown, Jupiter Jones/Peter Crenshaw/Bob Andrews, Tabitha-Ruth Wexler and others (as I’ve invoked Brown, I hope I remember to draw a line between Sally Kimball and Spenser’s version when I discuss Promised Land). The Godwulf Manuscript wasn’t the first novel I read in the series, I’m going to guess I’d read three or four others before I found this in a used book store. I did find, I now know, a copy with the original cover (as seen above). A year or two later, I loaned it to a friend who proceeded to lose it. I got over it (probably because I didn’t care about things like early editions then) and despite losing that copy, that friend later became my first college roommate, and I didn’t kill him in his sleep for it. Not even once.
That excursus down memory lane means nothing to you, but I put it there in case that friend reads this post. I hope he remembers the Klingon proverb, bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’.
I’ll hold off on talking more about my background with this series for now, but the fact I’ve been reading, and re-reading, and re-re-reading, and re-re-re-reading these books since 1986 (possibly 1987) probably gives you a pretty good idea what I think of them. I could probably write lengthy posts on the first twenty novels in this series without reading them again—but where would be the fun in that? Of the twelve Spenser novels I’ll be revisiting this year, this one is in my bottom two and I’ve read it at least fifteen times, and I don’t see me stopping reading it anytime until I start sleeping the big sleep.
Yeah, that was a purposeful Raymond Chandler allusion. Why? Because this whole novel is a giant Chandler allusion*. From naming his main character after a British poet; to Spener’s attitude, demeanor, voice, etc.; to the opening paragraphs; and so, so much more this whole book screams Parker’s debt to and affection for Raymond Chandler. Spenser as a Shadow of Philip Marlowe will ebb and flow over the years, but I don’t think it’s ever more pronounced than it is in these pages.
* Yeah, there are other influences afoot in these pages, I realize. But Chandler is the primary influence, and this isn’t a dissertation. I don’t have the time to be exhaustive, I have at least 9 other posts I want to complete this week and if I don’t cut a corner or two, I won’t be able to get to them.
So what are these two retainers mentioned above? The first comes from an unnamed university that bears a striking resemblance to Northeastern (Parker’s employer when this was released). An illuminated manuscript has been stolen and is being held for ransom. The problem? (or at least one of them) The University doesn’t have the kind of cash the ‘script-nappers want. They do have a suspect, however, a radical political group on campus: SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). Catchy, eh? Spenser starts looking into the group, focusing on a couple of the leaders.
Within a few hours, one of those leaders is dead and another is the prime suspect for the murder. She’d called Spenser for help right after the murder, and he believes her (for compelling reasons you should read for yourself). This leads to the second retainer, her father—a pretty successful capitalist, it should be noted—hires Spenser to clear her for the murder.
The hunt for the manuscript and the murder will end up involving a cult, a couple of very dysfunctional marriages, drug dealing, a couple of hitmen, and a mob boss. Basically, Spenser has his hands full.
While there are many aspects of this novel that Parker will tweak for future installments, there’s a lot that he establishes here that he’ll revisit. Spenser gets fired because of his attitude (as demonstrated by his ignoring—rightly—the University’s insistence that he leave faculty alone), his being fired doesn’t stop him from sticking with the job, however. There’s a shootout in an unpopulated area near Boston*. Spenser cooks a pretty decent meal for himself (not quite Fritz Brenner’s level, but close enough for a guy cooking for one), and proves himself more literate than anyone looking at him would assume. The climactic fight will be echoed in upcoming books, featuring someone who has no business fighting anyone taking on a hardened criminal of sorts solely on the basis of love and desperation. Parker does get away from this, which is good—if only for the sake of variety—but man, I love it every time he uses this.
* My knowledge of Massachusetts geography comes wholly from the novels of Parker, William Tapply and Dennis Lehane, so I can’t be more specific than “unpopulated”.
Spenser physically roughs up a couple of college kids and verbally pushes around an older man. Each incident is followed by Spenser berating himself. This is the kind of thing that you don’t see a whole lot in the hardboiled world before Spenser’s debut. Parker will do a more subtle job in the future of showing that while Spenser will resort to violence when necessary, he doesn’t relish it (except when he knows the recipient is guilty of something) and regrets the act. But here, it’s pretty clear that Parker’s trying to show that Spenser isn’t unfeeling about acts of aggression.
There are things that show up here that will disappear—Spenser sleeps with two different women and is fairly casual about it. He’ll later become a paragon of monogamy, but that’s a couple of years away. Still, he’s less of a player next time we see him. He’s also a bit more antagonistic to most of the police that he encounters than he’ll be in books to come. Some of that is a shift in Spenser, some of that is a growth in the relationships he develops with individual members of BPD.
The main thing that sticks around in the future are some of the characters—we meet people here that Spenser still knows and interacts with on a regular basis. Spenser flirts a lot with the secretary for the head of Campus Security, and we’ll see her later. A reporter for the Campus newspaper gives Spenser a lot of help and information about various people/groups on campus, her name is Iris Milford and when Ace Atkins brought her back in 2015, I may have let out an audible whoop. We meet Spenser’s lawyer, Vince Haller, who not only helps Spenser, but the college student being framed. Haller will eventually disappear from the stage (I realize as I write this), but he’s a frequent presence for a long time to come.
But the three big recurring characters are Lt. Martin Quirk, Sgt. Frank Belson and Joe Broz. Spenser and Belson (a homicide detective) have some history and clearly respect (and even like) each other. Belson’s smart, appears lazy (appears), perpetually has a cheap cigar in his mouth (I think that’s a characteristic in this novel, if not, it will be next time we see him). Belson’s superior is Lt. Quirk. Quirk is a very no-nonsense cop, he’s driven, almost humorless, and has no use for private investigators, but sees a little value in Spenser and begins to trust him a bit over the course of this novel. Joe Broz, on the other hand, couldn’t be less a homicide detective if he tried—you could argue Broz (and his employees) are responsible for the continued careers for a handful of homicide detectives. He’s a crime boss of some notoriety and viciousness. At this point (and for some time to come), he’s the most powerful mobster in Boston (although we will soon meet competition). Spenser will be a thorn in Broz’s side for a long, long time.
It occurs to me that I haven’t described Spenser himself. He’s a former professional boxer (not that good, but he did get his nose broken by someone who was very good); a Korean War vet; a former Massachusetts State Trooper, assigned to the DA’s office in a County that fluctuates depending on Parker’s memory; and now a Private Investigator. He’s very literate, he likes to cook (as I mentioned), he drinks a lot, thinks he’s funnier than anyone else does (except the readers of the novels)—which brings him a lot of grief. We don’t get a lot of insight into it in this novel, but honor’s very important to him and it will influence the way he deals with clients, victims, criminals and everyone else along the way. He’s very much a latter-day knight.
I’m not sure that the mystery is all that clever, but the strength of this book is riding along with Spenser as he goes around annoying people until someone does something that he can catch them at (a strategy he’ll spell out in the future, but follows here). I love the voice, I enjoy the character, and watching him go about his business is a pure joy for me.
I haven’t discussed the action/fight scenes yet, and Parker’s approach to them (particularly in the first 15-20 of the series) has always greatly appealed to me. Parker has to address violence, given his chosen genre–and Spenser is a violent man. But in months to come, we see the character address that in such a way to give us insight into why Parker uses it the way he does (I think). So I’ll put a pin in this for now (also, this is long-winded enough at this point that I’ll take any excuse to wrap things up).
I, obviously, highly recommend this book—but I’ll be the first to say that the second is much better and the fourth and fifth in this series are better yet. You don’t have to start with this one for future books to make sense—in fact, you might appreciate Spenser more if you start later on. But for my money, you’re not likely to find many characters as compelling in contemporary (or at least late-Twentieth Century) hardboiled fiction. For introducing the character to the world/the world to the character of Spenser, The Godwulf Manuscript is well-worth the time. Even if it wasn’t the start of something big, it’s still entertaining enough for me to encourage you to read it.
This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.