Re your comments below:
"Even with my reservations, though, I can't praise his early books and, especially, his influence enough. For instance, I really doubt Paretsky would have been published if Parker hadn't reopened the market for PI novels. And she's just one of a long list of beneficiaries, such as Michael Lewin, Arthur Lyons, Jack Lynch, Rob Kantner, Elliot Lewis, W Glenn Duncan, Benjamin Schutz, Robert Crais, Brad Solomon, Bill Pronzini, Linda Barnes, George Pelecanos, etc. Sure, I may have come to liek some of their PIs better than Spenser, but I doubt I ever would have found them without him."
While I heartily agree with your main point, that Parker revived a mostly moribund mystery sub-genre, Pronzini's "Nameless" predates Spenser by several years.
The first "Nameless" short story, "It's a Lousy World" (aka "Sometimes There Is Justice"), was first published in 1968. The first novel in the series, THE SNATCH, first appeared in 1971. Parker's THE GODWULF MANUSCRIPT didn't appear until 1973. By that time, "Nameless" had been featured in at least nine short stories and three novels.
I also agree that the first half-dozen or so Spenser novels are top-notch. I think, in a mostly private eye-less world (at least in publishing, it was still fairly stong on TV and movies), a large part Spenser's early appeal was Parker's unabashedly enthusiastic use of all the familiar, but long-unused tropes associated with the PI. Oddly, as Parker introduced more and more elements that were his alone (the long-standing girlfriend/virtual wife, the thug partner, the surrogate son, etc.) the series started to go downhill.
My favorites of the early books were MANUSCRIPT and MORTAL STAKES. I liked the academic background in MANUSCRIPT and Spenser was still a lone wolf, which is how I most liked him. STAKES's sports background was also well-resented; I thought Spenser's moral dilemma was well-presented; and Susan (making only her second appearance.
MORTAL STAKES, with its unconvincing radical lesbian amateur terrorists, and its lengthy discussions on the meaning of honor and courage, was a step down, but it did introduce Hawk, as an adversary rather than an ally. And it was the first PI novel in nearly two decades to win an Edgar for Best Mystery Novel.
While THE JUDAS GOAT was a return to form it was also, in retrospect, the point where the series started to go downhill, since Hawk had, between books, morphed into Spenser's best bud/unofficial partner. The very well-done international chase plot was reminiscent of the Chet Drum books in general, and PERIL IS MY PAY (also set during the Olympics) in particular.
For me, the rot started to set in during the next three books, and EARLY AUTUMN, a supposed PI novel about building a cabin, was particularly disappointing.
But Parker's facility with dialog, action, and pace kept me reading until A CATSKILL EAGLE (I'm kind of anal about reading series in order). The book was basically, how should I put this, bad. And the scene in which Hawk obligingly murders someone so Spenser doesn't have to really bothered me. When it came to moral choices, it seemed Spenser talked a good game, but really didn't have the courage of his convictions.
The only Spenser novel I ever read after that was PALE KINGS AND PRINCES, and that one only because I was writing an article about "town tamer" stories in the tradition of RED HARVEST. That said, it was a pretty good example of that particular sub-sub-genre, but wasn't good enough to tempt me back into the fold.
By that time, Parker's success had already led to the introduction of a whole lot of other PI characters I liked better.
And, since Chandler isn't as good a writer as Hammett, it follows that Parker can't be better than Hammett if he isn't better than Chandler.
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