Spenser (character)

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First appearanceThe Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
Last appearanceAs written by Parker, Sixkill (2010); character is currently being written by Ace Atkins
Created byRobert B. Parker
Portrayed byRobert Urich
Joe Mantegna
OccupationPrivate detective
Significant other(s)Susan Silverman
ChildrenPaul Giacomin (adopted son, first appears in Early Autumn)
RelativesSam Spenser (father), Cash (maternal uncle), Patrick (maternal uncle) revealed in Chasing the Bear

Spenser—his first name is never officially revealed—is a fictional character in a series of detective novels initially by the American mystery writer Robert B. Parker and later by Ace Atkins.[1] He is also featured in a television series (Spenser: For Hire) and a series of TV movies based on the novels.

Fictional biography[edit]

Spenser was born and grew up in Laramie, Wyoming[2] and is a Boston private eye in the mold of Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, a smart-mouthed tough guy with a heart of gold. Unlike Marlowe, Spenser maintains a committed relationship with one woman (Susan Silverman). Although he is an ex-boxer (who likes to remind readers that he once fought the former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott) and lifts weights to stay in shape, he also is quite well educated, cooks, and lives by a code of honor he and Susan discuss occasionally—though as infrequently as he can manage.

Spenser bears more than a passing resemblance to his creator, Robert B. Parker. Both are Bostonians, and both spent time in Korea with the U.S. Army. Spenser served as an infantryman in the 1st Infantry Division during the Korean War.

Spenser is a former State trooper assigned to the Suffolk County DA's Office (although some novels state that he also worked out of the Middlesex County DA's Office; Walking Shadow and the pilot episode of Spenser: For Hire say he was a Boston Police detective), and regularly seeks help from (or sometimes butts heads with) Martin Quirk (originally a lieutenant, later a captain, and is now an assistant superintendent according to Little White Lies) of the Boston Police Department. Among his other police contacts are Sergeant Frank Belson and Detective Lee Farrell, both homicide investigators under Quirk's command; Healy, a captain of the Massachusetts State Police; and Mark Samuelson, an LAPD lieutenant (later promoted to captain, as mentioned in Back Story). In Massachusetts each county District Attorney's office has a squad of State Police Detectives assigned to their office to conduct investigations of major crimes committed in their jurisdictions.

Scotch is Spenser's drink of celebration.[3] This is mostly having to do with an encounter with a bear while bird hunting in his teens. Spenser seems to agree with William Faulkner's assessment of scotch — "that brown liquor which not women, not boys and children, but only hunters drank."[4] He also frequently drinks Irish Whiskey, sometimes just as a nod to his ethnic heritage, saying “The thing I like about Irish whiskey is that the more you drink the smoother it goes down. Of course that's probably true of antifreeze as well, but illusion is nearly all we have.”

After his mother's death (which occurred prior to Spenser's birth — he was an emergency C-section), Spenser was raised by his father and two uncles (his mother's brothers), all of them carpenters, who do not appear in the series.[5] Spenser received a football scholarship to Holy Cross, where he played strong safety. Spenser injured his knee and dropped out because he didn't have the funds to complete his schooling. He took up boxing, and met Hawk and Henry Cimoli, the owner of a gym where Spenser and Hawk still work out. His family unit beyond his near-fraternal relationship with Hawk is essentially Susan Silverman, an unofficial foster son named Paul Giacomin, and a series of dogs all named Pearl after Spenser's childhood dog of the same breed, a German Shorthaired Pointer. (Author Parker has been photographed on the Spenser series dustjackets with a dog matching his description of the Pearls.) Silverman, originally a high school guidance counselor, continues to assist Spenser in his cases after becoming a Harvard-trained Ph.D. psychologist. Giacomin, initially an awkward, unsocialized teenager, becomes a professional actor/dancer.


The other major character in the Spenser novels is his close friend Hawk, originally introduced in the fourth novel Promised Land. An African American, Hawk is an equally tough but somewhat shady echo of Spenser himself. Hawk served in the French Foreign Legion and served in combat overseas. Hawk is a "Gun for Hire" who lives by his own personal code. Spenser and Hawk met as boxing opponents in a preliminary bout in the Boston Arena (now known as Matthews Arena). Each man believes he was the victor.[6] Hawk may be modeled on the sidekick in Book Five of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene; Artegal, the knight of justice, has a helper named Talus, an invincible man of iron.[citation needed] Spenser and Hawk respect each other and are friends who each understand the other's philosophy of how to conduct themselves in life.

Maternal mystery[edit]

One of the inconsistencies (or, more likely, of retroactive continuity) within the Spenser series surrounds his mother. In some of the early books he refers to his mother and, in 1981's A Savage Place, for example, he even quotes advice his mother gave him.[7] However, by the time of the novel Pastime, Spenser states that his mother died during labor and he was delivered via Caesarean section, i.e. "not of woman born" as Parker has Spenser put it; he was raised by his father and his two maternal uncles. Parker never explained the inconsistencies.[8]

Young Spenser[edit]

Released in 2009, a young adult novel, Chasing the Bear, discusses some of Spenser's childhood, and further complicates the continuity issue with his family. At the end of the novel, Spenser leaves his father and uncles behind in Wyoming to attend college in Boston. No information was released as to whether this would commence a fourth regular series for Parker before his death in January 2010.

Spenser's firearms[edit]

In the 1970s and 1980s Spenser usually carried a Smith & Wesson Model 36, .38 Special caliber, "Chief's Special" revolver. He would sometimes carry a .357 Magnum revolver that he usually kept in the top drawer of his office desk, for "just in case" situations. Spenser also had a small .32 caliber revolver that he carried as a "back up" weapon in the 1970s and early 1980s. In the novel The Widening Gyre Spenser carried a .25 caliber semiautomatic as a back up, and had it in his hand when confronted with two assassins - killing both. In 1992 Spenser started regularly carrying a Browning Hi-Power 9mm semi-automatic pistol. In 2010 Spenser replaces the Browning with a Smith & Wesson .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol. In 2012, he starts carrying the Chief's Special again while working, but also carries the .357 Magnum or the .40 caliber Smith & Wesson, in addition to the .38 Special, when anticipating a possible gunfight. On rare occasions Spenser would use a rifle or shotgun when the situation required them. Spenser of the TV show carried a Beretta 92 9mm semi-automatic pistol.


By Robert B. Parker:

  1. The Godwulf Manuscript (1973)
  2. God Save the Child (1974)
  3. Mortal Stakes (1975)
  4. Promised Land (1976) (Edgar Award, 1977, Best Novel; adapted into pilot episode of Spenser: For Hire)
  5. The Judas Goat (1978; adapted into Lifetime TV movie)
  6. Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980)
  7. Early Autumn (1981)
  8. A Savage Place (1981; adapted into Lifetime TV movie)
  9. Ceremony (1982; adapted into Lifetime TV movie)
  10. The Widening Gyre (1983)
  11. Valediction (1984)
  12. A Catskill Eagle (1985)
  13. Taming a Sea-Horse (1986)
  14. Pale Kings and Princes (1987; adapted into Lifetime TV movie)
  15. Crimson Joy (1988)
  16. Playmates (1989)
  17. Stardust (1990)
  18. Pastime (1991)
  19. Double Deuce (1992)
  20. Paper Doll (1993)
  21. Walking Shadow (1994; adapted into A&E TV movie)
  22. Thin Air (1995; adapted into A&E TV movie)
  23. Chance (1996)
  24. Small Vices (1997; adapted into A&E TV movie)
  25. Sudden Mischief (1998)
  26. Hush Money (1999)
  27. Hugger Mugger (2000)
  28. Potshot (2001)
  29. Widow's Walk (2002)
  30. Back Story (2003)
  31. Bad Business (2004)
  32. Cold Service (2005)
  33. School Days (2005)
  34. Hundred-Dollar Baby (2006)
  35. Now and Then (2007)
  36. Rough Weather (2008)
  37. Chasing the Bear: A Young Spenser Novel (2009)
  38. The Professional (2009)
  39. Painted Ladies (2010)
  40. Sixkill (2011)
By Ace Atkins
  1. Lullaby (2012)
  2. Wonderland (2013)
  3. Cheap Shot (2014)
  4. Kickback (2015)
  5. Slow Burn (2016)
  6. Little White Lies (2017)
  7. Old Black Magic (2018)
With Helen Brann
(Parker’s longtime literary agent)
  1. Silent Night (2013)


The universe depicted in the TV episodes and movies diverges from that in the novels, though many of the filmed presentations are based on, and named after, novels in the series.

Spenser TV series[edit]

The Spenser books were the inspiration for the 1985-1988 ABC TV series Spenser: For Hire starring Robert Urich as Spenser, Barbara Stock as Susan, and Avery Brooks as Hawk. Though the series has not been available in broadcast syndication for many years, it has recently been made part of the lineup at AOL's new in2TV online broadcasting site. The first two seasons of the series were recently released on DVD.

Avery Brooks starred in a spin-off series entitled A Man Called Hawk.

Several made-for-TV movies based upon the series followed in the early 1990s featuring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks, with Barbara Williams and later Wendy Crewson as Susan.

Spenser TV movies[edit]

Beginning in 1999, Joe Mantegna played Spenser in three TV movies on the A&E cable network: Small Vices (1999), Thin Air (2000), Walking Shadow (2001), with Marcia Gay Harden as Susan and Shiek Mahmud-Bey and later Ernie Hudson as Hawk.

Shared universe[edit]

Spenser and Hawk live in the same Boston literary universe as Parker's other, newer series characters: private investigator Sunny Randall and small town police chief Jesse Stone, the former of whom was possibly mentioned in passing as a blonde jogging with an English bull terrier (named Rosie in the Randall novels) while the latter had a much larger role in Back Story. Susan Silverman is Sunny Randall's psychologist in Melancholy Baby.

The fictional Taft University, where Susan teaches, was also a primary setting for the Spenser novel Playmates, and the non-Spenser novel Love and Glory.


  1. ^ "Parker's series live on" by Mark Shanahan & Meredith Goldstein, Boston Globe April 28, 2011
  2. ^ Parker, Robert B. (1985). A Catskill Eagle. Dell Publishing, p. 335. ISBN 0-440-11132-3
  3. ^ Parker, Robert B. (1991). Pastime. The Berkley Publishing Group, p. 20. ISBN 0-425-13293-5
  4. ^ Parker, Robert B. (1991). Pastime. The Berkley Publishing Group, p. 24. ISBN 0-425-13293-5
  5. ^ Parker, Robert B. (1985). A Catskill Eagle. Dell Publishing, pp. 335-6. ISBN 0-440-11132-3
  6. ^ Parker, Robert B. (1991). Pastime. The Berkley Publishing Group, pp. 133-35. ISBN 0-425-13293-5
  7. ^ Parker, Robert B. A Savage Place, page 153, 1984 Dell edition ISBN 0-440-18095-3
  8. ^ Research of many interviews by Parker has produced no explanation of this.

External links[edit]