1 The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker
This is the first Spenser novel and as such Spenser both is and is not the detective we’re familiar with in the series. The core is there. He has an inner calm that I’ve always respected and he still dislikes authority. But Hawk and Susan are not yet in the series and they really round out and show the depths in the character.
In many ways this struck me as a classic Spenser plot. He starts out being hired to investigate the theft of an illuminated manuscript, but not too far into the novel he becomes very protective of a young woman who has been framed for murder. While it’s never phrased in these terms, Spenser’s personal code won’t let him stop trying to clear her and so he pushes on when others would give up.
While this novel is a sort of “who dunnit”, it’s by no means a cozy mystery. Parker does not toss out a mixture of clues and red herrings and expect the reader to put them together before the detective identifies the villain in the drawing room. Instead, we learn what’s going on as Spenser does and to make certain we are keeping up with the plot, Spenser explains his progress to people at various points in the novel. So from that perspective, this is more like an adventure story than an Ellery Queen. That’s not to say that there isn’t an important mystery at the heart of the tale and that uncovering the bad guy isn’t a lot of fun.
In Series Order
5 The Judas Goat by Robert B. Parker
A “Judas goat” is an animal trained to lead a herd (sheep, cattle) into a pen and quite often to slaughter. It’s a very apt title for this early Spenser novel in which the detective is hired to track down nine people who tossed a bomb into a London restaurant, crippling the client and murdering his wife and two daughters. There are no real leads, so Spenser takes an ad out in the paper offering a reward for information about the killers hoping they will do something to give him that one all-important lead. They do and the lead he gets is a look at one of the women attached to the group—a woman he uses to lead him to all of the others.
One of the peculiar things about this novel is there is a lot of “waiting” in it—waiting while conducting surveillance, waiting to see if there really are assassins in Spenser’s rooms and whether or not they will tip their hands, etc. Somehow, Parker manages both to show how difficult Spencer finds it to maintain his focus through these periods and yet at the same time make them very interesting to the reader. I was surprised to learn that there can be so much tension in waiting.
Naturally there is quite a lot of nail-biting action as well. Parker’s
novels move quickly from first page to last and always leave you satisfied.
7 Early Autumn by Robert B. Parker
Over the past few days, I had started half a dozen novels and decided that I wasn’t interested in them within a couple of chapters. I began to wonder if the problem might be me, so I went back to an old favorite author to see if he could capture my attention and didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. That’s how good Early Autumn is. Once you start you won’t want to stop.
One of the things I like about Spenser novels is he is often confronted with problems that I would have no idea how to resolve. A non-custodial husband has kidnapped his son from his ex-wife. Spenser just goes and takes the child back. It’s that simple and yet it starts an intriguing adventure in which Spenser becomes concerned about a boy who is being totally ignored by both parents except when they can utilize him in their little war with each other. Spenser, being Spenser, becomes interested in saving the boy and in doing so we get a very thorough look at the set of values that make Parker’s most famous detective the fascinating man that he is.
This is a wonderful novel for fans of the series, but it’s also a great
jumping on point if you want to see why there has been so much fuss over the
years about Spenser, Hawk and Susan.
21 Walking ShadowWhile I don’t really think of Spenser novels as formulaic, there are some plot elements that recur with a great amount of regularity. Some of these elements are the strength of the novel, like Spenser learning about a new area or business in which the crime he is investigating has occurred. Others are important parts of most Spenser stories—bad guys warning him off and Spenser refusing to be warned. Walking Shadows has both of these elements as Spenser runs afoul of a tong. Unfortunately, it also has another woman with issues fall for Spenser and become angry that he is in a committed relationship with Susan. I’m not sure how many times this has happened, but it feels like a regular event. You’ll figure out the who committed the crime and why very early on in this story, but the side elements that occur as Spenser fills in the details keep the book interesting despite this.
26 Hush Money by Robert B. ParkerA great author like Parker can tease interest in the first couple of pages and that’s what happened to me here. Spenser is working on two pro-bono cases and they weave in and out of each other in a style that keeps the novel moving at a thoroughly enjoyable pace. One of the cases involves an academic mystery that quickly gets seedy and violent. The other involves a stalker that has an eerie twist that really ups the tension. Spenser handles everything with his normal wit and nearly superhuman calm and we get great insight into Hawk as well. If you like Spenser novels this one is well worth your time.
36 Rough Weather by Robert B. ParkerThis novel was on the cusp of becoming an adventure novel rather than a mystery. Spencer is trapped on an island with his girlfriend with gunmen who have just murdered a bunch of people who got in their way of kidnapping a young woman on her wedding day. I had visions of Die Hard or Vertical Run starting, but Parker quickly brings it back to the tried and true Spenser investigations. Even though I was excited about the adventure, I’m ultimately glad he did. The mystery behind this novel is a great one (and I’m not just saying that because I figured it out). Parker is masterful in doling out the clues and keeping up the suspense as Spenser keeps plugging away to learn what happened to a kidnapped young woman.