The last Spenser

I’m nearing the end of the final Spenser novel. I know, someone else is going to continue the series, but without Robert B. Parker behind the pen, it just won’t be the same. Not that Parker has really been bringing his top game the last, oh, decade or so. In fact, I’ve often thought to myself while reading the last few Spenser novels that you could probably write a program that would automatically generate new Spenser novels, simply by pasting together key phrases and lines of dialogue. “We’d be fools not to,” I can hear someone say.

But even though the quality of the novels has been uneven lately, there was never a Spenser novel I didn’t truly enjoy. Parker’s death last year felt like the death of a lifelong friend, even though I had never met him. I knew, though, that the death of a literary friend would have to follow. Thanks to the vagaries of the publishing business, it took well over a year after his death for the final Spenser novel to come out. It arrived at my house last week. Ordinarily, I can get through a Spenser novel in a day or two. I’ve been trying to savor this one.

A friend of mine, a fellow Spenser fan, texted the other day to say he only had 30 pages to go. I was only half-joking when I replied that if he only read a page a day, he could draw it out a month.

I stopped reading last night with 30 pages to go. I don’t know if I’ll try the page a day thing or not. Probably not. I may, though, have to go back to The Godwulf Manuscript, the very first Spenser novel, published in 1973, and start the series over from the beginning – all 40 novels.

If you’ve never read a Spenser novel, you might be wondering what’s so special. That’s actually kind of hard to describe. The writing is sparse, but crisp. Secondary characters are often drawn in shallow caricatures. The plots don’t always come together. Spenser’s love of his life Susan can be extraordinarily irritating (someone once even penned an ode calling for Parker to kill her off; if I can dig it up online, I’ll repost it). I think the appeal of the novel comes down to two things: Spenser’s character and the strength of the bonds he creates with others in his life.

Spenser’s a tough guy who rarely loses a fight. But he’s also thoughtful, deliberate and, above all else, moral – though his moral code is far from traditional. His word is unbreakable. He will do what he thinks is right, no matter the cost. He’s determined far past the point of stubbornness. That dedication earns him friendship, trust and undying loyalty from an incredible range of characters, from a Massachusetts State Police Captain to a homicide detective to a collection of honorable-in-their-own-way thugs and miscreants he has encountered along the way.

The two central relationships through the series are Susan and Hawk. The relationship with Susan can be irritating. A Harvard-educated psychologist (neither Susan nor Parker will let you forget that fact), she has long (well, for a Parker novel), repetitive discussions with Spenser about life, love, duty, what he does, what she does, etc., etc. But Susan is Spenser’s constant. As he says more than once, he’d be less without her.

Hawk is as amoral as Spenser is moral. When he isn’t helping Spenser out, he’s probably up to no good. The only people he genuinely cares about are Spenser and Susan. But his bond with Spenser is as strong in some ways as Spenser’s with Susan. The friendship between Spenser and Hawk, dating back to their time in the boxing ring together, is based on mutual respect and understanding, even of their stark differences. Of course, that rarely gets spoken. Most of their dialogue is funny, cutting stuff. That’s how guys are, you know, and it is a great antidote to the conversations with Susan.

Anyway, 30 pages to go. Then 40 novels to read again. If I read one a year …

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