Confession: I have no idea how The Godwulf Manuscript got into my Kindle library. Someone must have recommended it to me or maybe I read a round-up of historical and/or American crime fiction somewhere. Either way it’s been beaming “read me” at me for months. So now I have.
And I have to say it’s different from most of my usual reading matter. Spenser is a private detective in 1970s Boston and he narrates his own stories – of which there are a huge number. Robert B Parker died in 2013 with dozens of titles under his belt. Others have taken up the baton since and there are now over 40 Spenser mysteries. The Godwulf Manuscript (1974) was the first.
We’re in a world in which insolence is snarled out of the sides of mouths – often quite wittily. Guns are ubiquitously owned, brandished and fired. People die like flies – but no one seems to grieve much and at one point our lusty protagonist describes personally strangling a criminal. Of course the man richly deserves it and it’s partly self defence but the casual, unashamed detail made me gulp several times. Then there’s the sex – Spenser takes his where he can get it. And that’s a bit eye watering too. None of it – guns, death, sex – is very serious.
The plot – fairly simple by crime fiction standards – gives us a medieval manuscript stolen from a university and Spenser brought in to find and recover it. Then a student at the same university is arrested for the murder of her boyfriend. Spenser believes first that she’s innocent and second that the murder is connected with the manuscript. And the background is a lucrative drug dealing culture.
For all the macho stuff, Spenser is an interesting character. Underneath it all is decency and passion for justice He knows Terry is innocent and is determined that she won’t go to prison for something she didn’t do. As JB Parker writes him he is master of terse prose too:
“I remembered Hayden. I looked round, I didn’t see him. He was going to get few merit badges for semper fidelis. I started for the door. The chain lock was still on it. The door that Phil had come through was locked from the other side. I went over to the bathroom. It was locked.”
I love that spare simplicity.
At one point Spenser asserts that “close observation is my business”. Thus his obsessive habit of describing every detail of clothing or everyone he meets or everything which is in every room he enters isn’t just there to irritate readers (as it did me, initially). It’s a subtle part of the characterisation.
This book is fun for a change. No one wants to be reading similar books all the time and I’ve always tried not to be a single track reader. I read this, for example, hot on the heels of Tim Spector’s Food for Life and Leah Broad’s Quartet, both non-fiction titles alongside Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and Christmas stories by Dickens. I’m not sure, however, that I want to read 39 more of them – maybe one or two, though, at some point in the future.
Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert