The Spenser novels are a long-running series of detective stories by Robert B. Parker, starring the eponymous private eye. Based in Boston with frequent excursions to other areas, the novels were much more experimental early on before settling into a comfortable niche (or, as some might say
, rut). The series is one of the most popular and influential modern works both inside and outside its genre (it is, most notably for this particular wiki, a large influence on both Peter David
and The Dresden Files
), and Parker has been called the modern successor to Raymond Chandler
Spenser used to be a cop, but was quickly bounced from the force for being insubordinate. He now works as a private investigator in Boston. With his best friend Hawk
for backup, and occasional psychological consultation from his girlfriend Susan Silverman
, Spenser's cases tend to start off simply before spinning wildly out of control.
The books in the series include
Parker died in 2010. Following his death, mystery novelist Ace Atkins was hand-picked by Parker's family to continue the Spenser series. His first Spenser novel is 2012's Lullaby
A short series based upon the characters, "Spenser: For Hire," aired on prime time television in the 1980s
, starring Robert Urich as Spenser, with Avery Brooks
as Hawk. Urich and Brooks reprised the roles for a series of TV movies on Lifetime (The Judas Goat
, and Pale Kings and Princes
, among others) later on.
Later TV movies on A&E have replaced Urich with Joe Montegna, and Brooks with Shiek Mahmoud-Bey and Ernie Hudson, with Marcia Gay Harden as Spenser's Love Interest
Susan Silverman. The movies, unlike most episodes of the show, are each based directly upon one of the novels.
This series provides examples of:
- Amusing Injury: Spenser's constant self-depreciating inner monologue tends to turn any injury he incurs into this. The champion example is when he gets shot with a small-caliber handgun in The Judas Goat. If you ask Spenser, it was a slight wound to the "upper thigh"; ask the doctor who treated him, and he was shot in the arse.
- Author Tract: In many ways, the series deals heavily with Parker's ideas of how people ought to live and how a man ought to act, as indicated via Spenser's actions and narration. This is about half an author tract and half Parker trying very deliberately to echo Raymond Chandler's ideas about how the private-eye genre should work; Spenser is in many ways the "man of honor" from Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder."
- Barbie Doll Anatomy: In Walking Shadow, the complete lack of pubic hair in a photograph of a woman helps identify her.
- Armoured Closet Gay: In Hush Money, Spenser encounters a Neo-Nazi homophobe who is gay.
- Attention Whore: Jocelyn Colby of Walking Shadow.
- Author Avatar: Many of Spenser's hobbies, such as reading poetry and cooking, mirror Parker's own. Both Spenser and Parker were also veterans of the Korean War. This is further illustrated by Parker's author photo, on the back covers of several of his books' paperback editions, being of Parker with a dog that had the same breed and name as Spenser and Susan's dog Pearl.
- Paul Giacomin, Spenser's adopted son, took a career path that roughly parallels that of Parker's son Daniel.
- On the other hand, Parker's wife Joan gets really irritated when people assume she's the basis for Susan Silverman.
- Author Appeal: Both of Parker's sons, Daniel and David, are openly gay. This is widely thought to have had an influence on Parker's novels, as they often deal with a wide variety of gay characters, ranging from the heroic to the pathetic. There is room for an interpretation of the series where Parker is using his writing as a method to slowly come to terms with his sons' homosexuality, which also explains the sheer number of male gay supporting characters in the later books.
- Cultured Badass: Spenser is a gourmet cook, has read (and can quote) all of the classics, enjoys poetry and ballet, and is absolutely capable of ending you in a dozen ways should the need arise.
- While Hawk spends a lot of time amusing himself by pretending to be an ignorant thug, he speaks at least three languages, listens to classical music, travels widely, is always impeccably dressed for the time period (sometimes he's dressed like a tasteful pimp, but it's impeccable), and has a taste for fine wines. He's also a former member of the French Foreign Legion and is, among other things, a hitman; Hawk sits out the action in Painted Ladies because he's been hired to do some freelance work for the CIA. Whatever he's doing when he's not hanging out with Spenser, it pays very well.
- Badass Longcoat: In the later novels, Hawk often wears a black leather trenchcoat or duster.
- Spenser has gradually developed a crew of badasses who will often come running when he asks, most of whom are professional criminals. This includes Hawk; Chollo and Bobby Horse, two mob enforcers and gunmen for an LA-based crimelord; local mafioso gunslinger Vinnie Morris; local Boston cop Lee Farrell; and the ex-Airborne bouncer Tedy Sapp.
- In the early novels, two Boston detectives (Sergeant Frank Belson and Lieutenant Martin Quirk) were regular background characters. Both Spenser and Hawk considered Belson to be their equal in the Badass department. Quirk, on the other hand, they acknowledged as their utter and complete superior, to the point that Hawk once said that if he had to take out Quirk he'd do it using firebombs and a platoon of snipers.
- BFG: Spenser is of the opinion that anything bigger than a 9mm pistol is, unless you intend to be fighting a finback whale, overkill. Hawk does not agree, and habitually carries a .44 Magnum, which Spenser often compares to an anti-aircraft weapon.
- Big Screwed-Up Family: The Clives from Hugger Mugger. Let's see here, the mother of the three girls was a hippie who ran off with a guitarist when the girls were in their teens, their father Walter really got around, SueSue is a Lady Drunk married to an alcoholic, and Wyatt is gay and uses his wife Stonie as The Beard. The most normal seeming one is Penny and the crux of the whole plot is Walter's illegitimate son Jason with Dolly, a self-described courtesan, whose inclusion in the will, where it was to be stated that he'd be given control of the business, prompted Walter's murder.
- Black Best Friend: Spenser's best friend Hawk first enters the series as an antagonist, but starting with The Judas Goat, he assists Spenser in many cases. In some of the books, Hawk comes across as the sidekick, albeit one who is just as competent as Spenser if not moreso, but later novels have evened the playing field dramatically. In Double Deuce and Cold Service, Spenser is essentially a supporting character in Hawk's book.
- Boring Invincible Hero: Spenser hasn't been so much as seriously injured in a book since he was nearly killed in Small Vices, which was published in 1997. It's a rare opponent that can so much as slow him down, and you can count the fights he's actually lost over the course of the series on the fingers of one hand. If Hawk is also involved in the fight, it is generally indicated that you would need an armored division to stop them.
- Ace Atkins' continuation of the series seems to be trying to avert this without going too far away from Parker's depiction. Spenser still wins most of his fights, but it takes more effort from him, and he takes a bit more damage as well, when he used to be practically untouchable.
- Canon Discontinuity: In a series that mostly concerns itself with a private eye doing private eye things, A Catskill Eagle reads vaguely like a Mack Bolan novel. While its events are still in the novels' continuity, to go by a couple of very rare references in later books, both fans and Parker seem content to ignore it. There's one mention in Hugger Mugger that may count as a Discontinuity Nod, when Susan says that she treats it like something that never happened.
- Catch Phrase: Whenever a villain pets a dog and someone wonders why, Spenser will remark "Hitler liked dogs" to point out that even evil people can have good points to them.
- While the phrasing varies, if he has no better clues to investigate, Spenser will follow even incredibly flimsy leads, his reasoning going basically along the lines of "If I assume the clue is a coincidence, I have nowhere to go. If I assume it is not a coincidence, I do."
- "A good big person will beat a good small person every time."
- "Readiness is all"
- Characterization Marches On: The three primary characters, Spenser, Susan, and Hawk, all evolve gradually over the course of the series. Hawk in particular is notable, as he comes off as much angrier in the earlier novels. Spenser is far more world-weary in early books, particularly in Promised Land, where his irritation at the prospect of tracking down yet another runaway wife due to her sudden discovery of 1970s-style radical feminism gets him in a fight with Susan. He also inexplicably loses his interest in fine cigars and woodworking after the first few books, although the former habit occasionally appeared in Robert Urich's depiction of the character.
- Chick Magnet: It's a rare book where somebody doesn't try to put the moves on Spenser, ranging from clients to criminals to unfaithful wives. He's only allowed himself to actually be unfaithful to Susan once, and it didn't end well, so now he just admires the women and occasionally flirts back.
- Comic-Book Time: Spenser is 37 in the first novel in the series and a Korean War veteran, but has not quite been allowed to age in real time. Otherwise, he'd be pushing 70, and thus unable to win the fistfights he tends to get into. In the modern books, he has a computer in his office and a cell phone, but few concessions are made to the passage of time.
- Creator Cameo: Parker appears in the Lifetime movie version of Small Vices as the CIA agent Ives, and his son Daniel plays Lee Farrell.
- Cross Over: Jesse Stone shows up in Back Story, along with several of his co-workers.
- Deadpan Snarker: Spenser, as well as almost every member of his supporting cast. With very few exceptions, the most notable of which is Vinnie Morris, being a complete wiseass is shorthand in a Parker novel for being extraordinarily competent. Any characters without senses of humor, or who take themselves too seriously, always seem to end up being antagonists.
"Who is your superior?"
"I have none. I'm not even sure I have an equal."
- The Determinator: Once Spenser is involved with a case, he will see it through to its end regardless of circumstance. Even if no one is paying him anymore, major criminal syndicates threaten him, he's nearly killed by an assassin, or he finds himself at odds with the U.S. government, Spenser will bumble his way to the case's conclusion.
- Damsel in Distress: Susan spends a number of the later novels as a potential target for whoever Spenser's managed to annoy that week. Spenser's typical reaction is to bury her office in trusted gunmen. This, naturally, irritates her to no end.
- Downer Ending: A Savage Place is the only Spenser novel where he completely and unequivocally fails at what he was hired to do - protect Candy Sloan's life. He does find who did it and bring them to justice, but technically speaking, that wasn't what he was hired for.
- Hundred Dollar Baby also has a pretty black ending since April shoots herself after Spenser discovers just how thoroughly fucked up she is
- Driven to Suicide: April Kyle
- Drives Like Crazy: Though not as over-the-top as other examples, Susan proves that she has a bit of Masshole in her in Hugger Mugger when driving to Saratoga in her new Mercedes convertible, and after changing lanes for no apparent reason and cutting off a Cadillac delivers a pleasant "Fuck you" when the driver honks at her. Spenser remarks that the only thing keeping him from being terrified is his trust in her.
- Expy: Spenser is a rehash of Philip Marlowe.
- Fille Fatale: April Kyle in Ceremony, eventually growing up into a Miss Kitty, albeit an extremely messed up one.
- First-Person Smartass: One of the greats.
- Food Porn: Robert Parker began his professional career as a food critic, and it shows. Spenser's a talented chef and often eats at gourmet restaurants—though he actually disclaims the compliment "chef" in Promised Land, commenting that a woman who cooks as he does would be called a housewife. His cooking gets fancier as the series progresses, though. In a subversion, Susan can barely boil water, and when she serves a fancy dinner cheats by ordering takeout and serving it prettily.
- Friendly Enemy: Hawk started this way, being someone Spenser knew from a gym they both went to, and they were pleasant to each other even when on opposite sides. Later upgraded to actual allies by the end of Promised Land, where Spenser warns Hawk that the deal is a set up, giving him time to get away and later Hawk refuses to shoot Spenser.
- Genius Bruiser: Spenser is repeatedly described by other characters as looking like a generic Irish thug; he's tall, has a weightlifter's build, and you can tell just by looking at him that he used to be a boxer (among other things his nose has been repeatedly broken). He's also a talented, mostly self-taught gourmet cook; possesses an Encyclopaedic Knowledge of English literature; and knows a great deal about psychology that he's absorbed from Susan.
- Good People Have Good Sex: Spenser and Susan have a remarkably rich sex life.
- Grey and Grey Morality: Spenser is often one bad day or bad decision away from being an outright criminal, and his solutions to problems often involve a hefty amount of blackmail, theft, or B&E. His primary motivator in most cases is his own somewhat inconsistent sense of morality, which frequently ends up being defined entirely by a reluctance to just let Hawk shoot everyone.
- Groin Attack: In Promised Land a female martial artist lands one on Spenser, but he's been on the receiving end enough times to shake it off and knock her on her ass, where he then tells her not to rely solely on that trick.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Spenser and Hawk.
- High-Class Call Girl: Frequent supporting character Patricia Utley runs a high-end escort service in New York City. April Kyle later tries to set up a similar branch in Boston's Back Bay (an extremely ritzy area).
- In Hugger Mugger Spenser meets a lesbian in Georgia who runs such an enterprise, though she sends out the problem girls to do blow jobs at truck stops (which is what Stonie did as revenge to her husband) From the same book, Dolly describes herself as a courtesan, and when asked how she knows that her son Jason's father was Walter Clive her response is "I was a courtesan. I am not a whore."
- Honor Before Reason: The running joke in the books is that Spenser operates under the delusion that he's Sir Gawain. He's mostly guided by his own occasionally-idiosyncratic sense of right and wrong, which often complicates his life and his cases. Despite this, he's not actually delusional and just admires the old codes of honor and tries to live according to them as best he can, and is perfectly willing to push it aside when necessary.
- House Husband: Spenser is admittedly a better housekeeper, cook, and general domestic than his live-in girlfriend Susan Silverman, as she is the first to admit. But then, he is a Cultured Badass.
- It's Personal: In Cold Service Hawk is nearly killed protecting a family (all of whom save one child die), and once he recovers he and Spenser set out to take down the ones responsible.
- Spenser himself has an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility, and will frequently pursue a case to its conclusion based entirely upon that. It's rarely actually personal for him, but Spenser tends to act as though it is.
- Jewish American Princess: Susan jokingly refers to herself as this, though she's far too down to earth to actually count.
- Lady Drunk: SueSue Clive from Hugger Mugger. Her husband is a straight up alcoholic who is stated to always be drunk any time after noon.
- There are several of these throughout the series, like KC Roth or Ronni Alexander.
- Loan Shark: A major plot point in Promised Land.
- Made of Iron: Averted, especially in the earlier books which is somewhat ironic considering he's also a Boring Invincible Hero. Spenser is pretty much unstoppable in a fight, but if he does take serious damage, especially being shot, it's portrayed with almost brutal realism. He takes hours to be capable of continuing with a case after being hit on the head in Looking For Rachel Wallace and is pretty clearly at least mildly concussed. When he is shot in the very first novel (The Godwulf Manuscript), a small-caliber wound to his side that "only" breaks a rib and tears some muscles puts him in the hospital for two days. Further shootings in Judas Goat, Widening Gyre, Valediction, Pastime, and especially Small Vices and Cold Service also show Spenser or Hawk needing time to recover from their wounds, often including hospital stays.
- The Mafiya: In Cold Service Spenser and Hawk go up against the Ukrainian Mafia out of Marshport.
- The Magnificent Seven Samurai: Potshot
- Miss Kitty: Patricia Utley, introduced in Mortal Stakes and her protegee, April Kyle, though the latter is much less stable and successful.
- Multiple-Choice Past: Pastime is in large part a deck-clearing exercise, where Parker sits down and figures out what Spenser's background is once and for all. Before that book, there are occasional mentions of Spenser's family or childhood, some of which conflict with the official version. Parker dealt with the discrepancies by citing what a colleague called, paraphrased, "the right of the author to come up with a better idea"; in short, if two facts collide in the novels, the later version is the correct one.
- No Badass to His Valet: Neither Spenser nor Hawk intimidate Susan Silverman in the slightest. For that matter, Rachel Wallace isn't much intimidated by either of them either.
- No Communities Were Harmed: The fictional city of Marshport in Cold Service is very similar to the real-life city of Fall River, Massachusetts. Port City could also easily be one of several cities on the North Shore.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: One of Spenser's go-to tactics is to not let people realize he's actually remarkably smart. He's a six-foot ex-boxer with a weightlifter's build and a frequently-broken nose, so when he first meets someone, absolutely no one expects him to be of even average intelligence.
- Only One Name: Spenser has a first name, but it's never been revealed to the reader. According to Parker, it's because Spenser was initially meant to be named after his first son, but Parker figured that would be unfair to his second son. Eventually, Parker just decided to keep it a mystery (he tells a client his first name in Stardust without the reader finding out what it is), although it's not a secret to the characters. Just about everyone he knows just calls him Spenser.
- Out, Damned Spot!: In Mortal Stakes, Spenser quotes Shakespeare when washing his hands of the blood of two mob men he was forced to kill. Earlier, he threw up right after he killed them.
- He also threw up after being forced to kill a pimp in cold blood in A Catskill Eagle.
- Psycho Sidekick: Hawk is the Trope Codifier. Especially when he kills the physically powerless villain in Early Autumn.
- He mellows considerably as the books go on, although most of it is expressed via a good-humored willingness to play things Spenser's way. Cold Service, on the other hand, is a stark reminder of how ruthless he actually is.
- Said Bookism: Averted, almost too much. Parker rarely uses anything other than "said" during conversations, and while it's fine to read, listening to one of the books on tape/cd/mp3/whatever will have you feeling that you hear the word "said" too often.
- Salt and Pepper: Spenser and Hawk, lampshaded by the characters to hell and back.
- Scary Black Man: Hawk, though a certain part of it is cultivated intentionally.
When [Hawk] wanted to, he could look as warm and supportive as a cinnamon muffin.
- Shout-Out: Characters from the Spenser series often show up in Parker's other novels. Both Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall have appeared in Spenser's stories, while most of Spenser's supporting cast have shown up in those books. Spenser himself has yet to do more than get referred to outside of his own series, perhaps owing to the issue concerning his name.
- Spenser occasionally runs into Boston-area celebrities, although they never have a speaking role.
- The books are full of cultural references, ranging from old movies to Hemingway to various poets. T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare, William Butler Yeats, and E. E. Cummings are quoted the most often, with several novels taking their titles from Yeats's "The Second Coming."
- In the earlier books, Spenser often compares himself to famous fictional gumshoes as part of his running internal monologue.
- Two of the villains in Mortal Stakes are an Affably Evil Fat Bastard and The Dragon, a little asshole whose Berserk Button is being made fun of, much like in The Maltese Falcon.
- Quirk's line to a thug in Paper Dolls, "Is this one smart? Is this one a quick learner?" is a Hemingway quote.
- Hawk introduces himself to a mook in Pale Kings and Princes as Mr. Tibbs.
- Spenser's "Crimestopper Tips," which he occasionally mentions in his narration in the earlier novels, are a reference to a feature that used to appear in "Dick Tracy's" Sunday strips.
- Show, Don't Tell: Spenser never says how he feels emotionally, even in his internal monologue. He only describes how he feels physically, and what he is doing. Despite this, the reader never has any doubt about how he feels - he occasionally throws up after being forced to kill people, and when Susan leaves him he drinks a lot and even has trouble hitting the heavy bag at the gym - no rhythm, just sledgehammering it.
- Spinoff: A Man Called Hawk began on ABC in 1989 after Spenser For Hire was canceled; it only lasted for thirteen episodes, though.
- Straight Gay: Tedy Sapp is an ex-Airborne weightlifter and nightclub bouncer with a black belt in karate, and on par with both Spenser and Hawk for sheer badass potential. He actually dyes his hair a very bright blond in order to gay himself up a bit.
- Take That: Parker, who had a doctorate in English literature from Boston University, apparently had a low opinion of teachers and professors. In the novels where Spenser must investigate a case on or near a college or high school campus (Playmates, School Daze, Hush Money), almost every teacher or administrator he encounters is completely out of touch with reality. There are exceptions, but they're rare, and usually clock in at one per book. Relatedly, Susan initially started as a school guidance counselor, but eventually left to pursue private practice, citing administrative drama as one reason.
- The Stoic: Both Spenser and Hawk, naturally.
- Suicide by Cop: DeSpain in Walking Shadow.
- The Triads and the Tongs: Featured in Walking Shadow, based out of Port City. They employ young immigrant men from Vietnam as Elite Mooks.
- There Are No Therapists: Parker was dedicated to averting this trope, since Susan was not only a professional therapist who offered Spenser advice, but was the therapist to Sunny Randall as well.
- There are no therapists, because they're all in this series. Constantly. To the point of parody.
- True Art Is Incomprehensible: The play "Handy Dandy" featured in Walking Shadow is extremely confusing and obtuse, and when interviewing the playwright Leonard O (who proves to be an enormous snob) about the case, Spenser lampshades it to hell and back and manages to catch O off guard when he points out that he stole the Tiresias stuff from T. S. Eliot. O insists it was a "homage" but Spenser isn't fooled.
- The Verse: All Parker's books are in the same 'verse and, while neither Sunny Randall nor Jesse Stone actually work with Spenser, they see him at a distance and meet many members of his supporting cast. Susan was Sunny's therapist for a while.
- Violently Protective Girlfriend: Most of Spenser's adversaries have enough honor of their own that they try to avoid hitting him through Susan, but the one time somebody tried going after him while she was around, Susan waited until their backs were turned and knocked a guy out with a rock she pried out of a nearby garden arrangement.
- Unreliable Narrator: Spenser, when referring to his looks, is more of an Ironic Narrator. He describes himself as looking like Cary Grant (and in later novels Tom Cruise), but most other characters seem to view him as the Irish ex-boxer tough he is. He also refers to his irresistible smile, but mostly in the context that he can't understand why it's not working on whichever woman he's trying to sweet talk.
- Wife Husbandry: Reversal; a grown-up April Kyle tries to put the moves on Spenser, but he flatly refuses. His narration indicates that when he first sees her as an adult he initially thinks she's good looking, but as soon as he figures out who she is paternal instinct takes over and he feels no sexual attraction to her at all.
- Worthy Opponent: After Spenser manages to arrest Rugar, the Gray Man, in Small Vices, he appears twice more, in Cold Service and Rough Weather. In both subsequent books, he and Spenser treat one another like old rivals whenever they meet, rather than embittered enemies.