Literary Techniques

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 138

One of the hallmarks of Parker's fiction is its smooth and effortless prose style. And although he has perfected his writing skills through the series, The Godwulf Manuscript does not read like a beginner's novel. From his very first book, Parker displays his easy mastery of plot, characterization, and exposition....

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One of the hallmarks of Parker's fiction is its smooth and effortless prose style. And although he has perfected his writing skills through the series, The Godwulf Manuscript does not read like a beginner's novel. From his very first book, Parker displays his easy mastery of plot, characterization, and exposition. His handling of the first-person narrative is sure and convincing. His evocation of place is done economically. One of the achievements of Parker's series has been its exploration of Boston and its environs, putting that city into the crime lexicon just as Dashiell Hammett or Ross Macdonald did for San Francisco and Southern California. Parker creates his Boston without cluttering the narrative with unnecessary and confusing detail. In all ways, this first Spenser novel provides a masterful beginning to his long-running series; it is an exceptional inaugural effort.

Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

Robert Parker's thesis for his Ph.D. was a study of the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald, and his fiction reveals his debt to all three. Spenser as a character is probably most like Philip Marlowe, even down to the fact that both figures bear the name of a famous English writer. Like Marlowe, Spenser is wise-cracking and irreverent, not given to following the rules, especially if they impede his investigation. He is not a loner, however, and the novels often do include his cooperating with the official police force. Spenser is also violent, more so than is Marlowe, and in this way he is like Hammett's Sam Spade, with his wolfish grin and tough-guy persona. Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer spends most of his time nosing around in the past of the wealthy and prominent, uncovering old crimes and exposing family skeletons. There is much of this in the Spenser series as well.

But Parker's books are not just pastiches of past crime fiction. His voice is unique and his series has done much to decenter the crime novel from its location in New York and California. More than any other contemporary mystery writer, Parker has helped to open up new settings for the private-eye novel and to pave the way for Sara Paretsky's Chicago, Carl Hiaasens's Florida, Tony Hillerman's Navajo country, and the many Southern crime books of such writers as Joan Hess, Sharyn McCrumb, and Carolyn Hart. In addition, Spenser presents a new, more human figure, sensitive and self-aware in ways much different from the usual series characters of the hard-boiled tradition.

As with all series, the Spenser novels have evolved through the years until they now have created a world of their own, peopled with continuing characters, exploiting a recognizable locale, and exploring in a dependable style a set of themes and social concerns recognizably Parker's own.

The academic crime novel has a long and distinguished pedigree in both British and American literature. Dorothy Sayers, who was an academic herself, used a mythical Oxford woman's college for the setting of her mystery featuring Peter Wimsey's future wife, Harriet Vane, in Gaudy Night. Several series featuring settings in Oxford followed, including the books by J. I. M. Stewart, who was himself also an Oxford don, which he wrote under the pen name of Michael Innis and featured Sir John Appleby; the crime books by Edmund Crispin with Oxford Professor of English Gervase Fen; and probably the most famous, the Morse series by Colin Dexter, which have been widely publicized as a television show. British novelists Margery Ailingham, P. D. James, V. C. Clinton-Baddeley, Andrew Appiah, Robert Barnard, Michelle Spring, and Robert Robinson, among others, have contributed to the tradition as well. Andrew Taylor even used a medieval manuscript in his contemporary book Caroline Minuscule (1983). British academic crime fiction has tended to rely on settings in the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford and used the traditions of these ancient institutions to great effect.

The American academic mystery novel is probably best known through the Kate Fansler series written by Amanda Cross, a.k.a. Carolyn Heilbrun, once Professor of English at Columbia. Others have included Jane Langdon's Homer Kelly books, which have used settings at Harvard, and the adventures of Jane Haddam's former F.B.I. agent, Gregor Demarkian's. There also have been numerous individual novels which have used a university background including Carolyn Hart's A Little Class on Murder (1989) and Patricia Houck Sprinkle's first novel Murder at Markham (1988).

The academic environment with its often tight-knit social structure and isolated physical surroundings and frequently contentious intellectual tensions provides a perfect locale for murder. Parker manipulates all of these elements to great effect in The Godwulf Manuscript.

Adaptations

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Although none of the Spenser novels has been adapted to the large screen, his stories have become widely used on television, both in a series "Spenser: For Hire," and in a number of made-for-television movies. They all have starred Robert Urich in the title role and even though there have been several actresses playing Susan Silverman, Avery Brooks has appeared regularly as Hawk.

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