Iain Welsh nails the appeal of the early Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker.


Ostensibly first person “tough guy” detective novels, these are really extended meditations on the good life: what sort of person one should be, how one should act, what’s worth doing and not doing. Spenser has created the person he wants to be, and it’s a person that comes with high costs.

The dialogue is good, the plots are sometimes good, the characters become old friends and cliches over the length of the series. All the books are not as good as each other. Still, they were comfort food bestsellers for years.

The first Spenser novel, “The Godwulf Manuscript,” 1973, was a forgettable Raymond Chandler pastiche. Parker said so himself, and he was right. Spenser finds his voice — and Susan Silverman — in “God Save the Child,” 1974. I gobbled up the books in the series when I was in my 20s, and thinking about how a man should live.

The series turns weird in 1985; I found it difficult to connect with Spenser’s motivation in that year’s “A Catskill Eagle.” Then after that Parker has run out of things to say and he’s just cranking them out for the paycheck (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). The novels after 1985 are, as Welsh says, comfort food (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). But books 2-11 are brilliant.

Parker wrote a total of 40 Spenser novels. A writer named Ace Atkins wrote a half-dozen after Parker’s recent death. I read the first two. They were OK — actually better than Parker’s later novels, and I may come back to the series but it’s not compelling for me.

Welsh also praises a writer named Brian Daley, who was a favorite of mine before he died too young. Daley wrote a comedy-adventure space opera series starting with “Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds;” the Coramonde series, about an Armored Personnel Carrier in the Vietnam War that’s transported to a magic kingdom (Apocalypse Now meets Game of Thrones!) and “A Tapestry of Magics,” which I have no memory what it was about but I remember the hero carried a broadsword slung between his shoulders, which I thought was badass.

It happened in the Oracle pressroom

[sitting in the Oracle OpenWorld pressroom. Two men approach me diffidently.]

MAN (with a thick accent): “Are you [unintelligible]”?

ME (staring blankly — a strategy which works well for me when all else fails): “Huh?”

MAN: “Are you [unintelligible]?”

ME: (staring blankly): “Huh?” (maybe it’ll work this time)

MAN (haltingly): “What … country … are you from?”

ME: “America. California.” (California is a country now?)

MAN (enlightened): “Ah! I think you are German. Your name.”

ME: “No, American. I can prove it.” (opens briefcase) “See? Processed food and watery beer!”

MAN: “I am Germany public relations for Oracle.”

ME: “I’m afraid I can’t help you. Good luck finding Germans though!”

A single sentence of the previous exchange is made up. The remainder actually happened.

I’m surprised I get anything done at conferences because I seem to spend all my time walking back and forth between the coffee urn and toilets.