If you’re a New Englander, chances are you know the Spenser franchise. Created by novelist Robert B. Parker in 1973, the Spenser books, and then the TV series “Spenser for Hire,” were a mainstay of my childhood.
The show starred Robert Urich and Avery Brooks as gruff, tough, heart-of-gold detective Spenser and his enigmatic partner in crime-solving, Hawk. Now in the made-for-Netflix film version, “Spenser Confidential,” Spenser is played by iconic Bostonian Mark Wahlberg, and Winston Duke is the mercurial, inscrutable Hawk.
At the top of “Spenser Confidential,” Spenser is a former cop in the city of Boston. He got sent to prison for beating up his boss, who was both dirty and taking swings at his wife. Now that Spenser is out, and bad guys and former colleagues have told him to leave town, he’s decided to become a long-haul truck driver and move to Arizona.
But a Spenser story without Boston would just not be right, so of course, he gets sucked back into investigations and trying to right some grievous wrongs. It turns out leaving and doing the right thing are in conflict, so what does a brawler with an innate moral compass do? He doesn’t leave town, that’s for sure. Instead, he goes after the bad guys.
What Makes the Spenser Franchise So Good?
One of the greatest things about Parker’s “Spenser” is the series’ intimate relationship with the city of Boston and its surrounding metropolitan area. With Boston-native Wahlberg, one of the only actors who can deliver the right accent, the new Netflix movie taps into that too. The characters, sights, and sounds of Beantown are all present and accounted for.
Another great thing is the friendship between Spenser and Hawk, and Wahlberg and Duke deliver this seamlessly. In the books, the two come to be friends over a mutual interest. Spenser is trying to solve a murder, Hawk has a vigilante interest, and if memory serves, there’s something about protecting a kid. The two find that their enthusiasm intersects in punishing bad guys.
Parker’s Spenser novels were ever-present in my home as a kid. My dad read them all the time, and Parker’s books would be splayed out over couch arms or hanging off the end of a railing. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I picked up some of Parker’s private detective series at a second-hand book shop and became hooked myself.
I read every Spenser book, as well as every other Parker novel I could find. Parker died a few years ago, and he won’t go down in history as one of America’s great literary figures, but as a writer the man had heart. His prose is compelling. He had a love of simple, direct sentences and characters with big needs who were at turning points in their lives.
This is why it’s too bad that in this new addition to the Spenser universe, the producers went with Ace Atkins’ “Wonderland” instead of any of the much better, original Parker stories. Atkins took up writing Spenser novels after Parker’s death in 2010, but his plots are a little more convoluted and less character-driven than Parker’s.
Parker’s Spenser is a guy who almost in spite of himself does the right thing, a guy who in many ways would rather he didn’t have this moral compass, this heart of gold, this drive to do right by people. He seeks justice for widows and orphans because he just cannot do otherwise. He’s almost disappointed in himself for not taking the easy way, for always doing the right thing, but he does it anyway.
Wahlberg’s Spenser has a little of that, but he takes almost too much pleasure in being the good guy. Alan Arkin is great as Henry, the feisty oldster who owns the gym where Hawk works on his mixed martia arts stance and Spenser teaches him how to throw punches. Marc Maron takes a run at playing a jaded reporter who now lives on his boat and runs a local blog, while Iliza Shlesinger is full of moxie as Spenser’s sort of not girlfriend.
Everyone Should Watch ‘Spenser Confidential’
For this transplanted New Englander, seeing Wahlberg and the city through Spenser’s eyes yet again was worth the cost of admission, which was my Netflix subscription and sitting on my couch. If you haven’t read the books, specifically Parker’s original series that sparked it all, they are worth not only a beach read, but a whole summer of beach reads, and if it brings you into the glory of a leaf-peeping fall, so be it. They’re not super intense, but they’re quite engaging, and the stories have a kind of gritty 1980s-ness that has been so glossed over by the nostalgia for neon socks and side ponytails.
At one point in “Spenser Confidential,” Spenser takes on five guys with machetes, and then Hawk backs the car into a plate-glass window to get him out of that mess. “You get beat up a lot,” Hawk says once they’re clear of immediate danger, “and every time you get your face punched in, you get just a little more information.” This is a classic, ball-breaking, good guy, man-type friendship, and to be honest, I’ve missed it on the small screen — on any screen, for that matter.
“Spenser Confidential” is full of fighting and trading insults. No super powers or special weapons, no cool outfits. Except for the occasional cell phone-based plot point and the trading of drug names such as heroin for fentanyl, this movie could easily be from a Boston that is decades past, which is kind of how Boston feels much of the time anyway.
No matter who takes a stab at Spenser, whether Atkins or “Spenser Confidential” writers Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland, the best Spenser writer is Parker. And if Netflix has a go at another segment in the “Spenser Confidential” series, which I think it should, let’s hope it goes with one of Parker’s originals.