Ah, the first Spenser mystery, the one to start a series of almost forty books in forty years. Having started it somewhat in the middle, I went back to the beginning to see where it all began. I found writing that appealed even more than mid-series when Parker had distilled his writing down to the bare bones. Though I’m a fan for the art of minimizing in my physical life, there’s something to be said for richness in mood and setting, particularly in a mystery, and this supplies it in spades. It is also coarser, to be certain; late Spenser was sanitized and heroic, faithful to Susan. It’s clearly early Spenser, evidenced by a gratuitous torture-porn scene that literally did nothing for the plot, and Spenser’s general attitude of a swinging 70s ladies’ man.
There’s a bit of social commentary as well, which late Spenser also seems more comfortable avoiding. Spenser is consulted by a college dean who wants him to find a missing illuminated manuscript which is apparently being held for ransom. He has to spend his time hanging around radical, anti-establishment college students who are all about the dogma, man. It allows for some solid, world-weary reflections: “I felt the beer a little, and i felt the sadness of kids like that who weren’t buying it and weren’t quite sure what it was.” One of the radicals gets framed for murder, so the case rapidly shifts from a missing McGuffin to a Find the Real Killer.
It’s interesting, sometimes, to read these and feel the time period soaking through. This is a booze-soaked story, to the point of a cop offering Spenser a pint as he’s recovering in the hospital, and the cops are very period. I was kind of amused/fascinated to find an incident where the police officers transported a gunshot victim. They did that, you know, pre-ambulance days. Emergency medical services didn’t really get underway until 1970, and paramedics a bit later. I’ll be honest; the female characters are accessories, which would annoy me more if it had been long-standing through the series. No, some day, the psychologist Susan will come in and annoy us all with her anorexic eating habits, so I suspect my tolerance was indirectly the result of my irritation with future direction. Parker is also weirdly fascinated by clothes and describes what each character is wearing, even extraneous ones. Again, kind of fun in the retrospective sense.
“He looked like a zinnia. Tall and thin with an enormous corona of rust red hair flowing out around his pale, clean-shaven face. He wore a lavender undershirt and a pair of faded, flare-bottomed denim dungarees that were too long and dragged on the floor over his bare feet.”
Overall, a solid P.I. mystery, and a good start to a series.