Monday, 23 September 2019

The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert B. Parker (a review)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I’ve read and loved, which I know adds to the crime genre and that I think you’ll enjoy you’re a fan.  Of course, since this book is almost fifty years old (published in 1973), you might have already heard of it.
cover scan of my copy, 1987 Penguin edition
For Spenser, that most unorthodox of private detectives, no case is ever straightforward and the theft of a fourteenth-century illuminated manuscript proves no exception.  His investigation soon leads him into organised crime, dope-pushing, theft, radical politics, adultery and murder.

The Boston private eye is seldom at a loss, however and with the best left hook since Bulldog Drummond and the neatest line in patter since Philip Marlowe, Spenser takes on all comers.

Spenser (“I was living that year on Marlborough Street, two blocks up from the Public Garden”) is hired by a Boston university to recover a rare medieval manuscript, stolen from their library.  His investigations lead him to SCACE (the Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation) whose secretary, Terry Orchard, is living in rebellion against her rich and prominent parents and when she’s framed for her boyfriends murder, she calls Spenser for help.

As the book that began the series, this is the most hardboiled Spenser I’ve read and it’s interesting to see how elements we’d later take for granted are still finding their feet though the bulk of Spenser’s traits - his code, the humour, the cooking, the doggedness - are all very much in evidence.  This is made more vivid because his usual support team - Susan Silverman and Hawk especially - are missing (Susan won’t appear until the next novel, Hawk arrives in Promised Land), while the book shows him meeting Lieutenant Quirk for the first time (with an abrasive start that slowly calms down) and establishes he already knows Sergeant Belsen.  Spenser is harsher here (Susan’s influence definitely softened his character), sleeping with both a mother and daughter (at separate times) and killing several people, while his interaction with Brenda Loring (mentioned later in The Judas Goat) brings a nice touch of hope to the melancholic finale.  Secondary characters, as ever, are well observed (especially, in this case, Iris Milford and Phil, the enforcer for crime boss Joe Broz), there’s excellent use of location (the sequence at Jamaica Pond, where Spenser gets into real trouble, is excellent and doesn’t shy away from either the boredom or the brutality of the private detective’s lot) and the pace trots along wonderfully.

As always, there’re some nice touches of humour such as when he meets Terry’s stockbroker father and is asked, “Spenser, do you know who I am?'
“I guess you're Terry Orchard's father.”
He hadn't meant that. “Yes,” he said. “I am. I am also senior partner of Orchard, Bonner, and Blanch.”
“Swell,” I said. “I buy all your records.” 

There’s also a beautiful little piece, when Terry takes a drink at Spenser’s apartment.
“She let the smoke slip slowly out of her nose as she sipped her drink, holding the glass in both hands. The smoke spread out on the surface of the bourbon and eddied gently back up around her face. I felt my stomach tighten; I had known someone a long time ago who used to do just that, in just that way.”

For a book that’s almost fifty years old, it stands up very well to a modern read and only some elements - namely the fashion and some of the dialogue from the younger, radical characters - age it.  Otherwise it’s a fantastic crime novel, bracing and harsh and amusing, a cracking start to an excellent series.
1976 Penguin edition
I’ve long been a fan of Robert B. Parker and his Spenser series.  As I wrote in my appreciation of Parker (which you can read it here), I first discovered him in the late 80s as I got into crime fiction (inspired by seeing The Long Goodbye on Moviedrome), having started with Raymond Chandler’s novels, then Sara Paretky’s V I Warshawski series and Sarah Dunant’s Hannah Wolfe novels.  After thoroughly enjoying Promised Land (which I wrote about here), I worked my way back to the beginning.

Robert Brown Parker was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on September 17th, 1932, the only child of Carroll and Mary Parker.  After earning his BA from Colby College in Maine, Parker served in the US Army in Korea and in 1957 earned a Master’s degree in English Literature from Boston University (BU).  He worked in advertising and technical writing and earned a PhD in English Literature from BU in 1971 with a dissertation titled “The Violent Hero, Wilderness Heritage and Urban Reality”, which discussed the exploits of fictional private-eye heroes created by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald.  He wrote his first novel in 1971, became a full professor in 1976 and turned to full-time writing in 1979 after five Spenser novels had been published.

In addition to the Parker series (he eventually wrote 41 novels, the last two published posthumously, the final completed by literary agent Helen Brann), his prolific output included nine Jesse Stone novels, six in the Sunny Randall series, four in the Cole & Hitch series (including Appaloosa), two Philip Marlowe novels and seven stand-alones.

Parker received three nominations and two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the first for Promised Land, the second being the Grand Master Award Edgar for his body of work in 2002.  In 2008 he was  awarded the Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award.

Robert B. Parker died suddenly of a heart attack, sitting at his desk at home, on January 18th, 2010. He was 77.


  1. I came to Robert B Parker quite late - probably only 10-15 years ago. The Spenser novels are fantastic, and for a while they became my go-to books when I wanted a guarantee I was going to have a great read that I didn't have to work hard at (see also Lee Child, Ed McBain, Elmore Leonard, Robert Crais). He makes them seem so effortless, which probably means he worked bloody hard at them! Thanks for the reminder - there must be a few I've not read yet.

    1. You're welcome - and thanks for commenting. I got up to "Double Deuce" (when he started having a lot of 'white space' in the novels) and stopped there, heading back to the beginning!