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.