Book Review – sort of
The Godwulf Manuscript
By Robert B. Parker
Fair warning – this is not a typical book review; it is subjective as hell, more remembrance than review.
I’ve written before about my relationship with reading. Like any love story, there are both struggles and fond memories. Robert B. Parker is at the center of many of those fond memories. As I have written before, as a child, when reading was hard, I believed that bookmarks were goal markers. My dad tucked them in the back of his novel. I believed that you had to force yourself to read, so why else would you have a bookmark. Half the time, or so it seemed to me at the time, my dad’s novel would be a Robert B. Parker novel, a Spenser novel. Other times, he would read Tom Clancy, Elmore Leonard, you understand his taste.
As such, Robert B. Parker (must include the “B” – can’t even think the name without the “B”) holds a special place for me. I can’t look at picture of Robert “B” and not remember my dad. I have flashbacks of Looking For Rachel Wallace at the cottage on the Cape, or The Godwulf Manuscript on the end table in the bedroom. Robert B. is a reminder of the man, my father.
Why did my dad like them so much? At the time, I didn’t get it. Post goal-setting book marks, I would read science fiction and fantasy. Even now, those are my favored genres. Modern mysteries held no interest for me. It wasn’t till much later, becoming an adult, post college, post 30’s, that I acquired a taste for mysteries or suspense. As I re-read The Godwulf Manuscript, I remembered conversations that had faded. My dad had enjoyed the character of Spenser, his wisecracking, his intelligence, his food. Yes, his food. Somehow, that stuck with me over the years. It was important enough for my dad that he mentioned it. Spenser likes his Hemingway, his Shakespeare, and his Scallops Jacques. Not what one expects from a street tough private eye. In one paragraph he describes Spenser’s (and probably Parker’s) culinary tastes as well as his character.
I got a pound of fresh scallops out of the refrigerator and began to make something called Scallops Jacques for supper. It was a recipe in a French cookbook that I’d gotten for a birthday present from a woman I know. I like to cook and drink while I’m doing it. Scallops Jacques is a complicated affair with cream and wine and lemon juice and shallots, and by the time it was done I was feeling quite pleasant. I made some hot biscuits for myself, too, and ate the scallops and biscuits with a bottle of Pouilly Fuissé, sitting at the counter. Afterward I went to bed. I slept heavy and for a long time.
I was surprised by some of the cultural content of the book. It was written in 1973, so it was of course a different era. In some ways it seemed more distant than even novels written a hundred years earlier. Take The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, published in 1892, the story reads clear and true. Characters’ motivations are not too difficult to parse. Maybe this means that the 70’s in the states were truly anomalous, a time of true cultural change. In the The Godwulf Manuscript, Spenser investigates a university society called SCACE, Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation, idealists funded by drug money, headed by a professor who believes that heroin will open people’s minds. His belief bordered on fanaticism, yet wasn’t called out as such. Talk about a different world.
Despite the cultural differences, the dialogue stands the test of time. I remember watching an interview with Parker, many years ago, the memories more like the flashbacks of the paperbacks on my dad’s end table. In that interview, he said he liked to write dialogue, that it comes naturally to him. That’s clear. He also said that it fills up pages faster than description. Either way, Parker is famed for his wisecracking dialogue. What’s different, however, is that Spenser’s wisecracking is pointed, reasoned. Lesser writers wisecrack for wisecracking sake. Parker’s dialogue comes from Spenser’s character. In the dialogue below, the sarcasm comes from a place of principle, he doesn’t care that Mr. Orchard is a self-important rich asshole. Spenser is his own man, and not just being a wise ass.
“Mr. Spenser. I am employing you to investigate a murder. I want a report of what you’ve discovered so far.”
“First, you may or may not be hiring me. You’ve offered. I haven’t accepted. So at the moment I owe you nothing. That includes how I met your daughter, and what we did.”
“Goddammit, Spenser, I don’t have to take that kind of insolence from you.”
“Right,” I said, “you can hire another Hawkshaw. The ones with phones are in the yellow pages under SLEUTH.”
I thought for a moment that Orchard was going to get up and take a swing at me. I felt no cold surge of terror. Then he thought better of it, and leaned back in his chair.
Spenser is also smart. Not Sherlock Holmes smart, but book smart, as well as street smart. Part of the appeal of his wisecracking is that he’s smart. He doesn’t make as many literary references in this book as he does in others, but Spenser is clearly well-read. This knowledge is the source for a lot of the wisecracks above. Take the following exchange.
“Why? Who the hell is employing who? I want to know your results, and you start asking me questions about professors.”
“Whom,” I said.
“It’s whom, who is employing whom? Or is it? Maybe it’s a predicate nominative, in which case …”
“Will you come off it, Spenser. I got things to do.”
He’s also tough. He’s a man’s man, but not invincible. While the character of Hawk doesn’t appear until later books, I find it refreshing that Spenser is not as strong or tough as Hawk. He can take a punch, and dish it out, but he’s not superman. The way he succeeds is by using his wits, his “charm”, and his brawn, all three.
Re-reading The Godwulf Manuscript was a fun trip down memory lane, a cultural experience, and a good read.
9 thoughts on “Book Review – The Godwulf Manuscript”
I don’t remember too much from this book, but I love Spenser. He’s as good a character as I’ve ever read. And Parker will always be one if my favorite authors. I don’t know if I’ll ever read the books in his series written by other authors.
That movement in publishing seems very _wrong_ “Robert B. Parker’s” [insert title here]. “Tom Clancy’s” series are like that too. It’s an attempt to leverage the success of the original. It also seems a bit ghoulish.
Truth be told, if the follow on stories are good then I’m happy to read it. The ghoulish quality raises the hurdle quite high, though.
You’re right. And I think I might have to blog about it now that I’m thinking about it. I mean, it sucks that he died before finishing his series, but I don’t know that I’d rather read the final Spenser novel or Jesse Stone story written by someone else. I’m sure there had to be something in writing before his death, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Lucky for me, I think I’m only like ten books into Spenser and I’ve read all of the Jesse Stone novels he wrote.
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I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed the book. Early Spenser is as good as anything that’s ever been written in the private-eye genre. For that matter, it can look “mainstream” literature in the eye and challenge it to a fight. And who doesn’t love dialogue along the lines of:
“Don’t give me any smart remarks.”
“You wouldn’t understand any.”
You’re right that Boston in the 1970s was an alien world, too. I didn’t know it well back then, but I work there now, and both the physical scenes and social dynamics are just … unimaginable. I think that time was an inflection point, where the world is in the middle of changing from one sort of thing to another. It’s like a car crash: things look pretty smooth and steady before, and they’re stable afterwards, but the bit in the middle is a mess.
I have to say that the later books don’t hold up. Parker went through some marital woes in the early ’80s, and he used his writing as a kind of wish-fulfillment therapy. A Catskill Eagle is a strange, hyper-violent, militaristic fantasy: woman leaves Spenser, other guy is a dangerous whacko (see? serves her right!) raising a commando army in the wild, remote hills of Connecticut (????), Spenser kills dozens of people, woman tearfully confesses how wrong she was, Parker–er, Spenser–is vindicated. Not recommended.
I’m in danger of writing a full-fledged essay here, so I’ll cut it short by saying that everything up through The Widening Gyre is totally worth reading–or re-reading.
JT, your description of an inflection point should be in a story. I want to steal it 🙂
I will be careful of later Spenser novels, thanks for the heads up. This one was a trip down memory lane for me, and a way to remember my dad.
I agree early Spenser is the best. I don’t remember the book where he described the main building of the Boston Public Library as an elegant 4 course meal and compared it to the new (at the time of the novel) addition to the BPL as a raw pound of hamburger. His wisecracking was spot on, the addition is a square box ugly on the outside and the inside. I went to a talk Parker gave at the BPL where he said his stories all began with an outline and the writing was filling in the outline. I think Ace Atkins got some source outlines from RB’s wife Joan. She touted Ace as the best writer to copy RB’s story style on Emily Rooney’s show, Greater Boston, and died a few months after her appearance there. Wonder who gets the royalties now.
I remember it too. Dad read the BPL section to me at some point.
I only read one or two Spenser novels back in the day. It didn’t reach me like it does now. That’s partly due to my age and willingness to read outside of genre (I’m still 80+ scifi).
I’m leery of any “new” Spenser novels. I understand that some fans will be happy with anything Spenser, but I have doubts that it can even come close.