Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript provides yet another occasion of exuberant good times, not to mention no-holds-barred assessment, for the Usual Suspects

April 23, 2009 at 1:03 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

godwulf-manuscript

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Robert B. Parker

Last week, the Usual Suspects met to discuss The Godwulf Manuscript, the first novel in Robert B. Parker’s long running Spenser series. Or at any rate, that was our topic, in theory…

I don’t mean to imply that we did that famous Book Club Thing where you talk about everything except the book – au contraire! Ably led by Mike, who shared with us some great material on Parker’s personal and professional life, we ranged far and wide on the subject of this now-venerable author of crime fiction and his oeuvre. But we also touched on other mystery authors, such as

Donna Leon: “I didn’t like the new one at all!” “What!! I thought it was terrific!”

and

Elizabeth George: “The TV films are terrible.” “Actually, I think they’re an improvement on the books.” “How can you say that! She’s a great writer!”

The above snatches of (approximately replicated) conversation illustrate the ability of the Suspects to agree to disagree. Well, most of the time anyway…

Then we got onto the subject of Frank Sinatra, with Leo recalling some of  the lore of Ole Blue Eyes that was part of the currency of his years of living in Hoboken. Loved the story about the baseball bat, Leo! And speaking of baseball, Leo reminisced about taking the subway to Yankee Stadium. Since, when young, I did likewise with my Dad and my brothers, I joined him in this fond recollection. Yet it was bittersweet as well: that storied ball park home no more to the New York Yankees, and my father gone these nine years.

But you cannot dwell too long  on any one topic at a Suspects gathering – unless that topic is the book currently under consideration. And so, back to The Godwulf Manuscript. This first entry in the long running  Spenser series came out in 1973, and as is usual in such cases, we found that the novel contained plenty of “time capsule” elements. Much of the action is set at a university, and the depiction of  the speech and behavior of students is both interesting and jarring. As a whole, the kids are pretty obnoxious, with their imitation jive talk and anit-establishment cant. All this, mind you, while they drink and smoke more or less continuously. The drinking seemed par for the course, but the smoking came as a surprise – at least, it surprised me.

Then as now, there is drug use. Yet another difficulty is posed by the casual expression of anti-gay attitudes. Spenser does not indulge in these slurs; in fact, his stance indicates disapproval when others use them.  Ethnic slurs and cruel stereotyping can pose a problem for readers of older crime fiction. I”ve encountered both in the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers – especially the latter – but it was somewhat disconcerting to come upon such sentiments in a novel written in the early 1970’s.

Even those of us who enjoyed Godwulf Manuscript were annoyed by Spenser’s casual bed-hopping. Ostensibly he’s trying to assist a young co-ed who’s gotten herself involved in a very dicey situation. When he meets her parents, they are portrayed as a couple of blue bloods with ice water in their veins. But before you know it, the mother is throwing herself at the detective! And who is he to refuse and risk hurting her feelings? Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there…

Perhaps allowances needed to be made for the randy sleuth, someone suggested. After all, the Sainted Susan Silverman had not yet appeared on the scene to tame the beast. True, but even so! (Susan Silverman joins the cast of characters in the next book in the series, God Save the Child.)

Finally, there was criticism of the plot. Although I’m a long time fan of this series, I’ve never read this particular novel. I’ve known the title though, and always wondered what Parker might have to say about a rare and precious document dating from medieval times.The answer is…not much.

Spenser is initially hired by a university to find the Godwulf manuscript, which has unaccountably disappeared from the library where it was housed. Parker is at pains to give the document an impressive, though entirely fictitious, provenance. The following information is provided by a rather pompous university president:

“‘A handwritten book, done by monks usually, with illustrations in color, often red and gold in the margins. This particular one is in Latin, and contains an allusion to Richard Rolle, the fourteenth-century English mystic. It was discovered forty years ago behind and ornamental facade at Godwulf Abbey, where it is thougght to have been secreted during the pillage of the monasteries that followed Henry the Eighth’s break with Rome.’

To which Spenser cheekily responds, “‘Oh…that illuminated manuscript.'”  (Spenser’s ability to crack wise was already fully formed in this initial outing. Then, as now, it tends to activate readily when a windbag needs deflating.)

(BTW – the president’s tale is in no way improbable. Last year, a psalter dating from the fourteenth century was discovered by a Sotheby’s cataloguer in the library of a stately home in England. Also, although Spenser likes to play the rube, he really isn’t one. Even less so is Parker himself, holder of a PhD in English from Boston University.)

The manuscript is a prime example of what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin. Having served as the springboard for all that follows, the document itself quickly fades into the background. In point of fact, it is, in an of itself, of little importance. Pauline cited this fact as a contributing factor to what she considered to be the novel’s poor plotting. She then mentioned a principle propounded by Chekhov; I believe she was referring to the dictum known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’ (Pauline, please correct me if I’m wrong):

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

Pauline disliked the book; a goodly cohort of Suspects joined her in this verdict. Yet again, I found myself very nearly “alone, upon a promontory” (with my long time partner in crime, Marge), liking a book that almost no one else liked. (Are my critical faculties inadequate? Do I need to worry about this?)

One person who did like Godwulf was Frances, one of our newer members. Now Frances has come to the Suspects from the rarefied world of ConanDoyle/Sherlock Holmes devotion. (I’m right there with you, Frances!) She had actually never read a Spenser novel and so was able to bring a fresh perspective to our discussion. What struck her was the artful way in which Parker seeded clues to Spenser’s character throughout the narrative, so that by its conclusion, you felt that you knew the detective as well, if not better, than any of the other characters did.

One other small but interesting point: I can’t imagine two more dissimilar writer than Alexander McCall Smith and Robert B. Parker. Yet in Godwulf, Parker quotes from the same poem that McCall Smith alludes to in The Careful Use of Compliments.  Here, Spenser has stumbled on a murder scene:

“I looked at her for two, maybe three minutes,feeling the nausea bubble inside me. Nothing happened, so I began to look at the bathroom. It was crummy. Plastic tiles, worn linoleum buckling up from the floor. The sink was dirty and the faucet dripped steadily. There was no shower. Big patches of paint had peeled off the ceiling. I thought of a line from a poem: “Even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course / Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot.” I forget who wrote it.

W.H. Auden wrote it; the title of the poem is “Musee des Beaux Arts.” It appears in full in the post entitled Feeling Scottish.

*************************************

Back in January, Pauline led us in a wonderfully illuminating discussion of Sue Grafton’ s first Kinsey Milhone novel, A Is for Alibi. I’m rather liking this idea of going back to an author’s early oeuvre and seeing how it compares to his or her present work. A few years ago, I went back in Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series to the third entry, A Ruling Passion (1973), and really enjoyed it, not least because it depicts Peter Pascoe and his spirited lover, Ellie Soper, as they head toward matrimony. Dick Francis has always been sparing in his use of continuing characters; nevertheless, I was delighted to make the acquaintance, albeit brief, of steeplechase jockey Alan York in Dead Cert (1962), Francis’s wonderfully accomplished  first outing.

We Suspects mostly agreed that the television versions of the Spenser novels have never quite gotten it right. I’d like to add, though, that whether or not you read Parker’s Jesse Stone series, you should definitely watch the films. The production values are extremely high, cinematic in quality, and Tom Selleck is close to perfect as Stone, the brooding, small town cop who can solve any mystery except that of his own broken heart.

Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone

Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone

7 Comments

  1. Nan said,

    Reading this was the best way to begin my day! It was really excellent. It was informative, interesting, witty, clever – everything I love in a bookish post. I read the book two years ago. I had read a few later Spenser books and wanted to go back to the beginning. It was particularly interesting to me because I went to college in Boston, and lived on Marlborough Street for a year. I left in 1973, but still the book is very familiar to me. And in the early seventies, some people’s attitudes towards gays had changed but not the majority by any means. My favorite Parker book is his ya title, Edenville Owls, and did a book report on the blog. Have you visited the Bullets and Beer site? Here is the Godwulf Manuscript page:
    http://bullets-and-beer.com/Godwulf.html

    And if you go to the following site, and scroll down just a bit, there’s a report on what the Fens area was like during the time period of the GM. I remember it was very creepy. We knew someone who lived on Symphony Road and his building was a real dump:

    http://www.city-data.com/forum/boston/124252-most-dangerous-sections-boston-8.html

    Thanks for a great, great posting.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Nan,

      First – Thanks so much for your extremely gracious comments, and for the links as well. I really struggled with this post, for some reason, so I’m especially grateful for your words of praise.

      One thing I didn’t get around to mentioning is how much my husband & I love New England in general and Boston in particular, where we both have family.

  2. Pauline Cohen said,

    Yes, Roberta, you have it right regarding Chekhov’s gun. You did a good job of summarizing our discussion of the Parker book.

    Thanks for your warm comments about the Usual Suspects. I also think we’re a great group, if that isn’t rather immodest!

    Pauline

  3. Usual Suspects: a most stimulating evening! « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] in long-running series – Sue Grafton’s A Is for Alibi and Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript – was illuminating and fun. I was surprised that two titles that I thoroughly enjoyed got a […]

  4. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Height, and other Dalziel & Pascoe novels – Reginald Hill The Pure in Heart – Susan Hill The Godwulf Manuscript and The Professional – Robert B. Parker The Remains of an Altar – Phil Rickman The […]

  5. Terry Horsley said,

    I’m re-reading the early Spenser novels, and they are fresh, wonderfully representing Boston in the ’80s as I knew it, and irresistable to keep reading. The late Robert Parker had a character reading/dialogue that was so economical, humorous, smartass, poignant that is so lacking in modern fiction. His romance with his characters that represents his beloved wife Joan stands as a lifelong tribute through his works, warts and all. This stuff is pure entertainment, true theatre. Nothing I know does it so well.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Yes! – beautifully put – I am in total agreement with the sentiments expressed.

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