THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT (1973) by Robert B. Parker

Parker_Godwulf_penguinRobert B Parker’s Boston private eye Spenser made his debut with this campus investigation, first into the theft of the eponymous precious artefact (he never does find it) before looking into several murders linked to a student revolutionary group. Like Thomas B. Dewey’s ‘Mac’ (and Columbo on TV) our protagonist is known only by a single name (he usually has to remind people it’s spelled with an ‘s’ in the middle, “like the English poet”). A tough guy with a sensitive side, he is also something of a gourmet …

I offer this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Spenser, I don’t care for your manner.”
“I’m not selling it, Mr Orchard. You called me.”

Parker’s doctoral thesis, ‘The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality,’ examined the work of Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. It is perhaps not a surprise therefore that in this introductory story (it was also Parker’s first novel), the debt to Chandler is very visible indeed (especially The Big Sleep, as per that very recognisable line of dialogue quoted above). In many ways though this is an anomalous entry in terms of what would make the rest of the series stand out. For starters, Spenser is pretty much flying solo here – yes, the friendly Sergeant Frank Belson is present and Spenser also meets Lieutenant Martin Quirk for the first time – they don’t get on to start with but a thaw sets in when Quick is muscled out by his captain due to political pressure. It wouldn’t be until the next book that Spenser would cross paths with his eventual soul mate Susan Silverman and another two more before the introduction of Hawk, his amoral but indispensable sidekickParker-Godwulf_penguin2. Spenser can only rely on himself here as he is hired to find an ancient manuscript and then fired again when news of his investigation leaks, and then hired by the super-rich parents of Terry Orchard, who is framed for killing her boyfriend, who may have been involved with the theft. But who is putting pressure on the police to get Terry convicted, and what is involvement of mobster of Joe Broz in the theft? Then her old roommate is found dead in a bathtub, and the police are a little too anxious to call it an accident … Was she having an affair with one of her tutors? The dialogue is polished, the plotting solid enough if unremarkable – but the less said about Spenser’s sleeping with both Terry and her mother, on the same day, the better!

“I could tell he was impressed with the gun in my hand. The only thing that would have scared him more would have been if I had threatened to flog him with a dandelion.”

If truth be told, this very long series of some 40 novels and a young adult installment too (now being continued after Parker’s death by Ace Atkins) probably peaked early, circa 1980, with Looking for Rachel Wallace. The dialogue was always strong even in later novels, but the plots often wore thin and our narrator could be a bit of a sententious bore at times. But the first half-dozen or so are full of energy and wit and a desire to take the hardboiled genre into more socially aware and relevant places – they are well worth celebrating.

The Spenser series

  1. Parker-Godwulf_quercusThe Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
  2. God Save the Child (1974)
  3. Mortal Stakes (1975)
  4. Promised Land (1976) (Edgar Award)
  5. The Judas Goat (1978)
  6. Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
  7. Early Autumn (1981)
  8. A Savage Place (1981)
  9. Ceremony (1982)
  10. The Widening Gyre (1983)
  11. Valediction (1984)
  12. A Catskill Eagle (1985)
  13. Taming a Sea Horse (1986)
  14. Pale Kings and Princes (1987)
  15. Crimson Joy (1988)
  16. Playmates (1989)
  17. Parker-promised_Land-Rachel_WallaceStardust (1990)
  18. Pastime (1991)
  19. Double Deuce (1992)
  20. Paper Doll (1993)
  21. Walking Shadow (1994)
  22. Thin Air (1995)
  23. Chance (1996)
  24. Small Vices (1997)
  25. Sudden Mischief (1998)
  26. Hush Money (1999)
  27. Hugger Mugger (2000)
  28. Potshot (2001)
  29. Widow’s Walk (2002)
  30. Back Story (2003)
  31. Bad Business (2004)
  32. Cold Service (2005)
  33. Parker-Mortal-StakesSchool Days (2005)
  34. Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006)
  35. Now and Then (2007)
  36. Rough Weather (2008)
  37. Chasing the Bear (YA) (2009)
  38. The Professional (2009)
  39. Painted Ladies (2010)
  40. Sixkill (2011)
  41. Lullaby (2012) written by Ace Atkins
  42. Wonderland (2013) written by Ace Atkins
  43. Silent Night (2013) Parker manuscript complete by Helen Brann
  44. Cheap Shot (2014) written by Ace Atkins

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘food / cooking’ category as in the course of the book our gastronomically inclined protagonist consumes or cooks up the following (with page numbers from my penguin edition, pictured at the top of this post):

  • Corned beef sandwich (17)
  • Hash and eggs (23)
  • Fried egg sandwich (44)
  • Scallops Jacques with biscuits (63)
  • Submarine sandwich (88)
  • Spanish omelet with slices of pumpernickel (94)
  • Chicken in a cream and mushroom sauce (100)
  • Lobster salad (108)
  • Plain doughnuts (124)
  • Steak (134)
  • Hamburgers (from McDonald’s)
  • German sausages with apple fritters



***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2014 Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo, Boston, Friday's Forgotten Book, Private Eye, Robert B. Parker. Bookmark the permalink.

44 Responses to THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT (1973) by Robert B. Parker

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Parker’s work is a good (and welcome) reminder that writers don’t always hit their strides at first. Thanks, Sergio, for reminding us of this first instalment in the series. It may not be the best, but it’s the beginning of Parker’s journey with Spenser and I find that interesting.

    • Thanks Margot – I enjoyed re-reading because I just couldn;t remember much about it – I think there’s a reason other are more memorable, but as you say, a good beginning, not to be sniffed at!

  2. tracybham says:

    I read just one book in this series, and did not care for it that much, so did not continue. I don’t even remember which one; it was years ago. I have often thought I should try another one, but where to find the time to fit it in? Do you have a suggestion or two?

  3. Santosh Iyer says:

    Sleeping with both Terry and her mother on the same day ? First time I have heard of such a thing !

  4. Donna says:

    I have tentatively scheduled this book for the library’s mystery discussion group next year. If you believe there is one Spenser from early in the series which really captures this character, I’d be happy to switch to that book.

    • Hi Donna – well, I think you might be better off with either Promised Land or even better Looking for Rachel Wallace – there is one edition that actually includes both together!
      Parker x 2

  5. Skywatcher says:

    I discovered the series a few years ago, and have essentially read them in no other order than the order in which I found them. Personally, I didn’t perceive any real falling off in quality, although the dialogue/description percentage changes over the years. Parker’s real skill was in dialogue rather than plot, and to me he is one of those writers whose books blur together in my memory over time.

    • I agree Skywatcher – it is equally true of his Jesse Stone books too – the dialogue and the characters are always what you take away, not the plots. I do think the first half dozen Spensers are the best in the series overall though …

  6. Colin says:

    Always meant to give the Spenser books a go seeing as there are so many of them – that list at the end has made me hungry too.

    • Parker does really great descriptions of food and cooking! I used to love the TV version Spenser for Hire starring the late Robert Urich with Avery Brooks stealing the show as Hawk (he even had a brief spinoff – A Man Named Hawk)

  7. I never really got on with the Spenser books – partly because I read this one thinking it was going to be a more traditional campus mystery – not his fault! I did read Rachel Wallace too, which I thought was good, but very heavy-handed over the whole feminist thing. I’m probably unfair on him, but then the last thing I need is a series of 40 books to get embarked on, so I’ll stay unreasonable….

  8. mikeripley says:

    I discovered Parker in 1982 when Keyhole Crime (an imprint of Mills & Boon?) published ‘Looking For Rachel Wallace’ which, I agree, was one of his best and there was one – I forget which – where Spenser comes to London which is really ropey. I met Bob in Murder One in London, where one of the assistants was a HUGE Spenser fan and quite an expert. Bob, who was absolutely charming, gave me a copy of his Raymond Chandler continuation ‘Poodle Springs’ but his visit coincided with a new Spenser paperback, ‘Crimson Joy’ (?), coming out here. As I hadn’t read one for a while I thought I had better support a fellow struggling author(!) and bought a copy, which he signed for me. On the way out of Murder One I was waylaid by the assistant/fan who bundled me into a corner and whispered that I really shouldn’t read that one as it was pretty awful and detracted from rather than added to the Spenser legend. I must have taken his advice because I do not remember reading it although I did return to Spenser and Parker later when the books had become love-songs to Susan Silverman and some soppy dog, as I recall. The early Spenser books were, however, influential on many writers of the hard-boiled, including Mark Timlin here in the UK and Robert Crais in the USA.

    • Thanks for all that Mike – was The Judas Goat the one in London? When they filmed it I think it was relocated to Canada! I have so many fond memories of Murder One from my student days (went to signings by Colin Dexter and Ellis Peters …) – which reminds me, must start reading Crais!

  9. Richard says:

    I read them all, I think, until near the end, when the books, and the plots and even the dialogue, got so thin there wasn’t much to them. I agree the first 6, maybe 8 are the best, and worth reading for those who have not so done, or rereading for those of us who only rad them once, now long ago. That double volume would be a good bet for new readers.

    A note to Moria on her comment, just about everything in 1980 with a feminist theme was pretty heavy handed, one way or the other, so what Parker did was as per the times, I think.

  10. John says:

    This is the first and only Spenser novel I read. I forgot about that cooking business. Hysterical to see it all in one list. I liked the book all right primarily because of the bibliophile aspect to the story, but neither Parker nor Spenser excite me in any way. Bill Pronzini has some choice words about about Parker. Based on the level of unjustified violence in later books he called him amoral in a 1001 Midnights essay. That may be why I have not ever returned to Parker’s world.

    • Thanks John – BP is such a cheerleader but can occasionally go off on surprising tangents (such as his dislike for the Wheeler and Webb books as by ‘Jonathan Stagge’) – Well, Spenser gets Hawk to do his dirty work for him anyway 🙂

  11. Yvette says:

    LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE is definitely classic, Sergio. I love the Spenser series and am happy to say that I’ve read them all. My favorite being EARLY AUTUMN, but the Rachel Wallace book is my second fave. Also PAST TIME. But there are many others. Thanks for this review, kiddo. I never get tired reading about Spenser. And thanks for not mentioning Spenser’s tiresome girlfriend – the only detraction/distraction for me in the series. (Though I don’t think she appears in the very early books.)

    P.S. Ace Atkins is doing a wonderful job of continuing the character. I’ve read a couple and will read more. He was a very wise choice.

    • Thanks very much Yvette – and great to hear that the new books are good – I didn’t get round to the last few Spensers (sort of switches allegiance to Jesse Stone, in a weird way).

  12. Jeff Flugel says:

    Glad to see you covering Parker’s SPENSER novels, Sergio! I discovered the series in my early 20s and became a rabid fan for a while. I tend to agree with you that the first half-dozen or so books are far and away the best, but there were a good many other noteworthy ones after that (I retain a strong fondness for EARLY AUTUMN especially), and as you say, the dialogue was always great fun to read. LOOKING FOR RACHEL WALLACE is a hell of a book, arguably everything that’s good about Parker distilled in one volume. THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT is a really good debut, but things really solidified from GOD SAVE THE CHILD on.

    Certainly Parker’s influence on P.I. fiction was large…especially in introducing the amoral badass sidekick character, which many many other authors have adopted since.

  13. Nicely reviewed, Sergio. I bought a handful of novels by Robert B. Parker recently although I’m not sure if any of them are part of the Spenser series. I’m looking forward to reading at least one of them before year-end.

  14. Kent Morgan says:

    I became a fan early on and bought the Spenser books in hardcover as soon as they came out. That lasted for about the first dozen. At that point on I would get them from the library. After a few more I didn’t bother with the library, but couldn’t stop myself from buying a used paperback when I saw one I hadn’t read. Like others, I hated the repartee between Spenser and Susan Silverman. Eventually I didn’t care if I read the last few and switched to the Jesse Stone series. I have the new Stone written by Reed Farrel Coleman from the library to read next.

    • Thanks Kent – it seems we all agree that there was a very marked falling off with the series – shame, but hardly unusual and Parker was so prolific that it is hardly a surprise. Curious to know what the continuations ar elike.

  15. Bev Hankins says:

    Sergio, I like this one a bit more than you (3.5 stars here)–probably because of the academic connection. I’m intrigued by your choice of category for the Silver Age card (I went with Out of Comfort Zone–since Spenser is a private eye, but could have done Academic Mystery if I hadn’t already had one lined up for that). All that food just whizzed on by me–I wouldn’t have thought to use it for the Food category.

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