Follow TV Tropes


Literature / Spenser

Go To

"Readiness is all."

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’s, 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.

There have been several adaptations of the Spenser series. The first, and best known is Spenser: For Hire (1985-88) which aired for 3 seasons on ABC, and starred Robert Urich as Spenser, with Avery Brooks as Hawk. The series spawned a short-lived Spin-Off A Man Called Hawk (1989) starring Brooks, as well as a mid-90s series of TV movies, directly based on the novels, airing on the Lifetime network, with Urich and Brooks returning again reprising their roles.

From 1999-2001, A&E produced a trilogy of TV movies starring Joe Mantegna as Spenser and Marcia Gay Harden as Susan, with Parker adapting the films himself. In 2020, Netflix released Spenser Confidential, an extremely loose adaptation of Ace Atkins' Wonderland, starring Mark Wahlberg, with Winston Duke as Hawk.

    The books in the series include 

  • The Godwulf Manuscript (1973): An illuminated manuscript is stolen from the university where it's kept, and over the course of investigating the theft, Spenser winds up at odds with the Boston mob. This novel introduces Quirk and Belson as well as Spenser himself, although Spenser's characterization is quite different from what it'd evolve into.
  • God Save the Child (1974): Spenser searches for a missing boy in the Boston suburbs, and makes the acquaintance of a guidance counselor named Susan Silverman.
  • Mortal Stakes (1975): Spenser is hired to investigate a professional baseball player, and discovers the player's wife has a checkered past.
  • Promised Land (1976): A client's missing wife has fallen in with bad company, and the client himself is in deep with a loan shark who has Hawk as an enforcer.
  • The Judas Goat (1978): The millionaire Hugh Dixon hires Spenser to track down the terrorists who blew up his family in London, which leads Spenser and eventually Hawk across Europe and North America in pursuit of the killers. This is the first novel where Spenser and Hawk work together on a case, and serves as the "travel episode" for the rest of the series; after Judas Goat, Spenser doesn't get any further from Boston than California.
  • Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980): Spenser is hired as a bodyguard for the controversial lesbian author Rachel Wallace, who he immediately clashes with. Shortly thereafter, she's abducted, and Spenser deals himself into the investigation.
  • Early Autumn (1981): After being hired to find a runaway teenager named Paul Giacomin, Spenser ends up dealing with the kid's parents and their deeply dysfunctional relationship with the kid.
  • A Savage Place (1981): Spenser goes out to Los Angeles to serve as a bodyguard for TV reporter Candy Sloan.
  • Ceremony (1982): While tracking down a missing teenager in the suburbs, Spenser finds her disappearance is linked to a child prostitution ring, which in turn is linked to the local school system.
  • The Widening Gyre (1983): Meade Alexander, a congressman and Presidential candidate, hires Spenser to protect his wife Ronni, who is currently the target of blackmail.
  • Valediction (1984): Susan Silverman breaks up with Spenser to move to San Francisco, sending Spenser into a depressive spiral that nearly gets him killed.
  • A Catskill Eagle (1985): Susan is missing, Hawk's in jail for murder, and a millionaire's son seems to be to blame. (See Canon Discontinuity, below.)

    Eagle concludes a multi-book story arc. Seahorse is arguably the point where the series begins to develop and repeat a formula.

  • Taming A Seahorse (1986): April Kyle, from Ceremony, is missing again, and is in even more trouble than before.
  • Pale Kings and Princes (1987): Spenser investigates the death of a reporter in an isolated mill town, which is related to the town's dirty secret: it's a nerve center for local cocaine distribution.
  • Crimson Joy (1988): Quirk asks Spenser for his help investigating a serial killer who might have ties to the Boston PD.
  • Playmates (1989): Someone on Taft University's basketball team is fixing games, and Spenser is hired to figure out who.
  • Stardust (1990): TV star Jill Joyce has a stalker, and Spenser is hired as her bodyguard.
  • Pastime (1991): Paul Giacomin returns, to ask Spenser's help with finding his missing mother. The "mystery" in this book is almost a side plot, as most of the book deals with Spenser telling Susan and Paul about his childhood in Wyoming. The version of Spenser's past revealed in Pastime sticks for the rest of the series to date.
  • Double Deuce (1992): Hawk and Spenser take on a street gang. At the same time, Spenser and Susan try living together.
  • Paper Doll (1993): An upper-class lady is suddenly murdered in downtown Boston, and Spenser is hired to find out who did it. The problem soon becomes that finding the murderer will involve learning a lot of powerful people's dirty secrets.
  • Walking Shadow (1994): After an actor is shot onstage during a play that Spenser and Susan are attending, Spenser's investigation of the murder leads him into conflict with the local Chinese mob.
  • Thin Air (1995): Frank Belson's young wife Lisa suddenly disappears. When Belson is subsequently shot and hospitalized, Spenser picks up the search. (This was turned into a well-known A&E movie with Luis Guzman as Chollo.)
  • Chance (1996): Spenser and Hawk go to Vegas in search of a Mafia princess's missing husband.
  • Small Vices (1997): While looking into the suspicious murder of a college student, Spenser is nearly killed by an assassin called the Gray Man.
  • Sudden Mischief (1998): Susan's ex-husband is back in her life, and he's in trouble.
  • Hush Money (1999): Spenser takes two cases simultaneously: one, investigating a college professor's loss of tenure, and two, protecting a neurotic friend of Susan's from a stalker.
  • Hugger Mugger (2000): Spenser is hired to investigate the deaths of several race horses on a ranch in Georgia, and in so doing, steps into the middle of a large Southern family's ongoing drama.
  • Potshot (2001): Spenser hires several of his past allies to come with him to a small town in Arizona and clean out a local gang of bandits. This is pretty blatantly Parker's take on The Magnificent Seven.
  • Widow's Walk (2002): An incredibly dumb but wealthy client is on the hook for the possible murder of her husband, and Spenser is hired to help the investigation.
  • Back Story (2003): In exchange for six Krispy Kreme donuts, Spenser agrees to help a friend of Paul's look into the death of her mother, who was shot thirty years prior during a bank robbery.
  • Bad Business (2004): A routine job following a possibly unfaithful husband turns into a murder investigation.
  • Cold Service (2005): Hawk is nearly killed by the Ukrainian mob. When he recovers, he and Spenser set out to deal with the men responsible.
  • School Days (2005): Following a school shooting, one of the perpetrators' grandmother hires Spenser to prove her grandson didn't do it. It soon becomes obvious that he did do it, but the why of it is more complicated.
  • Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006): April Kyle hires Spenser to deal with the people shaking down her new bordello.
  • Now and Then (2007): An FBI agent hires Spenser to investigate his wife's possible infidelity, which ends up leading Spenser into conflict with a domestic terror cell.
  • Rough Weather (2008): Spenser is hired to provide security for a wealthy heiress's wedding. The Gray Man promptly crashes it, kills the groom, and abducts the bride, forcing Spenser to pursue him.
  • Chasing the Bear (2009): A young-adult novel featuring a teenage Spenser and his childhood in Wyoming.
  • The Professional (2009): A number of wealthy women have all had affairs with the same man, who now appears to be blackmailing them. This is the last novel published before Parker's death, and enjoys the worst reviews of the lot.
  • Painted Ladies (2010): A college professor hires Spenser to protect him while he reclaims a rare painting from the men holding it for ransom. When the professor's killed, Spenser sets out to solve his murder.
  • Sixkill (2011): Jumbo Nelson is one of the most profitable movie stars on the planet, and when a dead girl is found in his bed, his lawyer brings Spenser aboard to help the investigation. Over the course of so doing, Spenser meets Nelson's bodyguard, an ex-football player and Cree Indian named Zebulon Sixkill, and begins to teach Sixkill how to be a detective.

By Ace Atkins:

  • Lullaby (2012): Mattie Franklin, a kid from South Boston, hires Spenser to find the truth behind her mother's murder. This means Spenser is forced to go up against the local criminal element, which includes a notorious and crazy gangster.
  • Wonderland (2013): Spenser's old friend Henry Cimoli hires him to chase off some thugs who are trying to intimidate Henry into selling his condo.
  • Silent Night (2013): Unfinished at the time of Parker's death, Silent Night was later completed by Parker's long-time agent Helen Brann. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Spenser is hired by Jackie Alvarez, who runs an unlicensed shelter for poor and orphaned children, to figure out who's harassing his staff. This is complicated by Jackie's older brother Juan, local philanthropist and not-so-secret drug runner.
  • Cheap Shot (2014): A football player hires Spenser and Sixkill to deal with what he thinks is a stalker. When his son is kidnapped shortly thereafter, the case turns into a media circus with Spenser at the center of it.
  • Kickback (2015): Spenser is hired to investigate the town of Blackburn, Massachusetts, where a local judge's zero-tolerance policy has sentenced his client's son to an extended stay in a corrupt detention center.
  • Slow Burn (2016): A fireman loses his best friend in a fire at a condemned church. When he suspects arson, he takes the case to Spenser.
  • Little White Lies (2017): When one of Susan's clients is conned out of a large sum of money, Spenser comes aboard to find and bring in the con man.
  • Old Black Magic (2018): An old acquaintance on his deathbed enlists Spenser to help him close his oldest case: an infamous art theft, long since gone cold, but with a new lead.
  • Angel Eyes (2019): Gabby Leggett's mother hires Spenser to find her missing daughter in L.A. Spenser and Z have to interact with agents, producers, Armenian hitmen, and a charismatic leader of an "executive training program" to find the truth...
  • Someone to Watch Over Me (2021): Mattie Sullivan intends to become an investigator herself, but her first case—reclaiming a lost backpack and laptop from inside an exclusive nightclub—turns out to be much more complicated than expected. Enter Spenser.
  • Bye Bye Baby (2022): A young progressive politician's team hires Spenser to investigate some of the most credible death threats she's received, which brings Spenser into conflict with an extremist militia.

By Mike Lupica

  • Broken Trust (2023): The wife of a tech billionaire hires Spenser to find out why he's becoming so withdrawn and paranoid. Then the man disappears, his wife is murdered, and Spenser has to figure out what going on with them and the man's friend who is running the company.

Parker died in 2010. Following his death, mystery novelist Ace Atkins was hand-picked by Parker's family to continue the Spenser series. His last novel was Bye Bye Baby in 2022. Mike Lupica picked up where Atkins left off.

A weekly series based on the characters, Spenser: For Hire, aired for three seasons (1985–88) on ABC. Robert Urich starred as Spenser, with Avery Brooks as Hawk. Urich and Brooks reprised the roles for a series of TV movies on Lifetime (The Judas Goat, Ceremony, and Pale Kings and Princes, among others) later on.

A later trio of TV movies on A&ESmall Vices, Thin Air, and Walking Shadow — replaced Urich with Joe Mantegna, and Brooks with Shiek Mahmoud-Bey and then Ernie Hudson, with Marcia Gay Harden appearing as Susan Silverman. The movies, unlike most episodes of the show, are each based directly upon one of the novels.

2020 sees a new Spenser movie for the first time in 19 years, Peter Berg's Spenser Confidential, starring Mark Wahlberg as Spenser and Winston Duke as Hawk. A Netflix original, it's extremely loosely based on both the Spenser universe (Spenser is an ex-con, Hawk is a much younger ex-fighter, Susan is wholly absent) and Atkins's book Wonderland.

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. (A later book did have him acknowledge, in a conversation with Susan, that he was indeed shot in the ass. Maybe enough time had passed? And she would have ended up seeing any scars, anyway.)
  • Artistic License – Geography: Parker, a Boston native who is usually very good about the geography and landmarks of his hometown, makes a fairly major error in Potshot. When Spenser, Hawk and Vinnie are starting their road trip to the town of Potshot, he talks about them heading out on the Mass Pike at 8 in the morning with the sun in their eyes. Since they are leaving Boston, that means they are driving directly west - the sun is behind themnote .
  • Artistic License – Law: In Hugger Mugger, Penny gets away with murder. However, she freely admits in front of a police officer that she had her sisters held against their will in the family house, ostensibly to help them "dry out" and get away from their bad husbands. This is kidnapping, no matter how you spin it, but no one seems to notice that she just admitted being guilty of a crime that carries almost as severe a penalty as murder. This is somewhat justified, however, in that the Clive family wields a lot of financial and social power in the area, and Penny's admission is meant to be seen by the reader as the first crack in her armor. The cops are going to get her for something, sooner or later, if not necessarily this.
  • Author Tract: The series often deals 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, where Parker is essentially cosplaying as Spenser: jeans, leather jacket, walking a dog named Pearl.
    • Parker's son David has said in interviews that Paul Giacomin, Spenser's adopted son, is based on him. In later books, Paul pursued a similar career path to David, as a dancer and choreographer.
    • 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.
  • Badass Crew: 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.
  • Badass Longcoat: In the later novels, Hawk often wears a black leather trenchcoat or duster.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Can't Tie His Tie: Paul, in Early Autumn. Spenser has to stand behind him to do it for him.
  • Catchphrase:
    • 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"
    • The TV series gave Hawk "Spensaar!"
  • 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. Susan's complete inability to cook is a relatively late addition.
  • 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.
  • Church of Happyology: HELIOS, in Angel Eyes. Spenser even name-drops L. Ron Hubbard for the comparison.
  • Comic-Book Time: Spenser is 37 in the first novel in the series and a Korean War veteran, but afterwards, is rarely allowed to exhibit signs of aging. If you read a bunch of books in a row, this can become bizarre, as Spenser progresses from using an answering service and needing to find pay phones to modern books where he has a computer and a cell phone, all while stubbornly ignoring the fact that he should be in his mid-80s.
  • Condescending Compassion: Clive Stapleton from Small Vices is black but was adopted by a wealthy white couple. While it's evident his parents do care about him, to the point of arranging for another man to take the fall for his girlfriend's accidental killing there's clearly a level of this at play, especially when his mother is explaining to Spenser why they adopted him and she specifically cites saving him from "a life of depravity."
  • Creator Cameo: Parker appears in the Lifetime movie version of Small Vices as the CIA agent Ives, and his son Daniel plays Lee Farrell.
    • In Playmates, Spenser notices someone's defaced a table in a restaurant with "RP + JH," surrounded by a heart: Parker and his wife's initials.
  • Crossover: Jesse Stone shows up in Back Story, along with several of his co-workers.
    • Spenser and Hawk cross over into the Sunny Randall series in Revenge Tour.
  • 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.
  • 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 in a Parker novel is shorthand for competence. Any characters without senses of humor, or who take themselves too seriously, always seem to end up being idiots, antagonists, or both at once.
    "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 kills herself when Spenser finds out the extent of her deceit.
  • 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.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: In Small Vices Patricia Utley has a miniature bull terrier named Rosie who Spenser at first mistakes for an aardvark. In the Sunny Randall series Sunny has the same type of dog, also named Rosie, but it's probably not the same dog.
  • Expy: Raymond Chandler wrote a critical essay in 1950 called "The Simple Art of Murder," which codified many of the "rules," as he saw them, for writing a detective story's protagonist. When writing the Spenser stories, Robert Parker treated "The Simple Art of Murder" like an itemized checklist, and was heavily influenced by Chandler besides. As such, Spenser as a character bears more than a few similarities to Philip Marlowe, although the two are both products of their respective times. It's probably not a coincidence that both Marlowe and Spenser share names with 16th-Century English poets.
    • The antagonist of Someone To Watch Over Me is a renamed Jeffrey Epstein. It becomes increasingly blatant as the book continues, up to the point where Spenser and Hawk are forced to infiltrate his private island.
    • Similarly, Bye Bye Baby is essentially Spenser being hired to protect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, But She's In Boston.
  • 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, and he has the telltale scarring around the eyes that boxers develop). 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.
  • 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 power through it and knock her on her ass, where he then tells her not to rely solely on that trick. He does allow himself a minute or two of deep breathing to get through the worst of it after he knocks her down.
  • 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.
  • Hypocrite: Lillian Temple in Hush Money, a somewhat pompous and disdainful leftist academic Spenser encounters while investigating why his client, a conservative-leaning African-American, was denied tenure by the university. Even after Spenser uncovers evidence that she deliberately sabotaged his tenure hearing because she didn't consider him politically correct enough by lying that he was having a homosexual affair with a student despite having ample reason to believe that he was heterosexual — because she was cheating on her boyfriend with him, he still marvels that she manages to find a way to twist the situation so that she can act with pious self-righteousness about it.
  • 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.
  • 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 more of these throughout the series, like KC Roth or Ronni Alexander.
  • Loan Shark: A major plot point in Promised Land.
  • Long List: In Small Vices Spenser is describing how Susan is making a beet risotto and then lists all the equipment and vegetable scraps she's used and left on the counter, which in some editions takes up nearly half the page. He ends it by saying she's not exactly a "clean as you cook" type.
  • Made of Iron: Averted, especially in the earlier books which is somewhat ironic considering he's also an 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: In Potshot, Spenser assembles a Badass Crew of six allies (plus himself) to rid an Arizona town of a gang of outlaws.
  • 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.
  • Mythology Gag: When Spenser is escorting Jill Joyce in Stardust, she mentions that one of her TV show's shooting locations in Boston is an abandoned firehouse, which is roughly in the same location as the firehouse from the "Spenser: For Hire" TV show.
  • 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.
  • No Full Name Given: 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. That being said, Hawk has a real fondness for "Jack" when addressing Spenser.
  • 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.
  • Person as Verb: In Hush Money, "doing a Brodie" is used in reference to an apparent suicide jumper.
  • Professional Sex Ed: Goes horribly wrong in Crimson Joy, in which the serial killer turns out to be acting out his rage at sex workers because of an incident when his abusive father hired one to "make a man of him", and she humiliated him when he couldn't perform.
  • 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.
  • Raised by Dudes: Spenser has pointed out, several times, that after his mother died, it was up to his father and uncles to take care of him; this included teaching him how to hunt, cook, and do housework. If it needed to be done, it got done.
  • Real Men Cook: Spenser cooks at home, to an almost restaurant-level quality. In contrast, Susan is implied in later books to be capable of burning water.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Kickback is based on an actual incident in Pennsylvania, where two corrupt judges were condemning juvenile offenders to unjustified sentences at a private-sector detention facility whose owner was paying them off.
    • The antagonist of Little White Lies, with his gray hair and purported CIA ties, sounds an awful lot like imprisoned Fox News "expert" Wayne Simmons.
  • 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, since much of the novels consist of conversations between two characters that are made up of rather short sentences.
  • Scary Black Man: Hawk, though a certain part of it is cultivated intentionally. He manages to intimidate a witness into cooperation with one short sentence in Widow's Walk, which Spenser chalks up to the fact that Hawk genuinely does not care what happens to her. On the other hand, Hawk is invariably popular with children, and is frequently shown amusing himself by playing into or against various stereotypes.
    When [Hawk] wanted to, he could look as warm and supportive as a cinnamon muffin.
  • Short Range Guy, Long Range Guy: Crime boss Tony Marcus has two main henchman: Junior, who is enormous and serves as his muscle, and Ty Bop, who does any shooting that needs to be done.l
  • 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 did not appear outside his home series during Parker's lifetime, and even then, it wasn't until the 2022 Sunny Randall novel Revenge Tour.
    • 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."
    • Spenser often quotes "my strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure." This is a line from the poem "Sir Galahad" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
    • 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.
    • Ring Lardner's line "Shut up, he explained" appears very frequently, almost once a book, usually changed to the first person.
  • 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.
  • The Shrink: Spenser's life partner Susan Silverman is one of The Awesome Shrink variety; not only does she care for her own patients, but she also helps Spenser anytime he has a crisis of conscience. She also shares insight on possible motivations and mindsets of suspects in his cases.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Played with. Spenser is talking to Del Rio and Chollo about a case he's on, and they are playing chess as he is talking to them, taking their time between moves and nodding at what the other does. However, his internal monologue reveals: "I didn't play chess. I had no idea what they were doing."
  • Spinoff: A Man Called Hawk began on ABC in 1989 after Spenser For Hire was canceled; it only lasted for thirteen episodes, though.
  • Stalker with a Crush: A double whammy in Hush Money; Susan asks Spenser to help an old friend who is being stalked by a former lover, which quickly becomes awkward when the old friend, who is somewhat unstable and neurotic, ends up developing an obsession with Spenser.
  • 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. (He explains that it's to help the bar's gay clientele trust him as a bouncer.)
  • Strong and Skilled: Discussed by Spenser. If a trained person fights an untrained person, the trained person will win; if two people of equal skill fight, the stronger person will win. Thus, it's important to be both strong and skilled.
  • The Stoic: Both Spenser and Hawk, naturally.
  • Suicide by Cop: DeSpain in Walking Shadow.
  • 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.
    • In fact, the very first line in the very first book in the series, is Spenser comparing a University dean's office to a "successful Victorian whorehouse".
  • 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.
  • Token Black Friend: Averted, then played straight. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The 'Verse: Shares a continuty with Jesse Stone and Literature/Sunny Randall. Jesse appears in Back Story and in return, Spenser and Hawk are mentioned in the Jesse Stone novels (though they don't appear as characters). Spenser's life partner Susan serves as therapist to Sunny Randall. Additionally, several supporting characters on both sides of the law appear throughout all of the series.
  • 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. She also ends up dealing with Spenser's Stalker with a Crush in Hush Money by giving her a good left hook in the face and promising that, if the woman ever comes near Spenser again, she won't be so restrained next time.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Several families, usually leading to the central conflict of a particular book, but the most regular one is between Joe Broz, and his son Gerry. Gerry believes he's as tough as his father, and Joe certainly wants Gerry to take over his "business", but it becomes obvious that Gerry doesn't have what it takes. (It gets to where Joe's "shooter", Vinnie, quits rather then deal with the family drama.)
  • 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. (It may help that Rugar views Spenser as 'the one that got away,' and Spenser having a decent plan to capture him in return and use him to go after someone else.) They also each recognizes that their counterpart has certain rules in what they do; part of the "fun" is working with and around them.

Alternative Title(s): Spenser For Hire