Spenser’s Boston, A Mystery Tour

We made a trip to Boston last month, and I wondered if I could think of any travel literature about Boston to talk about here. I would definitely have to investigate this mystery. We took a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard and saw the Jaws movie sites, but I have already told you about that thriller as a travel movie.

John Adams outside Quincy City Hall
John Adams outside Quincy City Hall

We visited Quincy Massachusetts, and looked for clues to the lives of the family of John Adams. Any reader should travel there and see the John Quincy Adams library! But I wrote about John Adams’ biography, a kind of time-travel book, back in July. In the city of Boston, we booked rooms at the amazing Nine Zero hotel. Kimpton Hotels, the group that owns Nine Zero, likes to say the hotel is located across from the Boston Commons. I don’t suppose it is good P. R. to say you are across from a graveyard. Directly across the street, you can visit the 2nd oldest cemetery in Boston, the Granary, which holds the graves of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere and the unfortunates who were shot by the British soldiers in what the American Revolutionary’s P.R. agents called the “Boston Massacre.”

Tombstone of the vicitims of the Boston Massacre
Tombstone of the vicitims of the Boston Massacre

I was beginning to suspect that nothing is quite as it seems in Boston, which makes for good stories. People still leave coins and stones on the  gravestone of Crispus Attucks and the others, although the stones may have moved far from the original burial location. Turns out, I could have been looking down from my hotel room on the home of a fictional character who makes a living doubting what he is told. Spenser, P.I. Robert B. Parker wrote the Spenser mystery series.  And mystery books, as my regular reader know, make the best books for travelers.  Spenser lives just two blocks from the Boston Commons. When I read several Spenser novels, and watched the old Spenser for Hire shows on T.V., I was not studying what they had to say about Boston, so I quickly grabbed an old Spenser that I had not read yet, The Godwulf Manuscript (1973). That mystery novel, or any other of the 37 Spenser novels, could have provided a tour book for Boston.  Had I thought to look at Robert Parker’s website, I could have eaten at Spenser’s favorite restaurants*. The hard-boiled detective Spenser distinguishes himself from other shamuses in that he is well-read and does not hesitate to quote literary passages from time to time. He also cooks. No canned hash for him–In Godwulf, after he rescues a damsel in distress, he cooks up a dinner for her of chicken breasts with a cream sauce with sherry and mushrooms over rice, accompanied by a salad with homemade dressing with lime juice, mint, olive oil, honey and wine vinegar.

Rooftops of Boston withBoston Commons. Charles River in background
Rooftops of Boston with Boston Commons. Charles River in background

Parker’s/Spenser’s sense of observation is keen, and you learn every detail of the look, smell and sound of his home town.  When Spenser drives to check a clue, you get a tour as good as a travel guidebook.  Here’s an example: We went down along the Charles on Memorial Drive and across the Mass Ave bridge.  Boston always looks great form there.  Especially at night, with the lights and the skyline against the starry sky and the sweep of the river in a a graceful curve down toward the harbor. Now if we ignore the murder and mayhem that precede and follow this excerpt, doesn’t that make you want to go to Boston? If you want more touring details, look for an out- of- print copy of Robert B. Parker’s coffee table book,  Spenser’s Boston (1994).




*Spenser’s Top 5 Restaurants In Boston [Note: These came from his website in 2009. Since Parker passed away in 2011, the website has been changed, and this list has been removed.]

  • Agawam Diner — Rowley (Rt. 1 and 133, Rowley MA)
  • Grill 23 — Boston (Steak house: 161 Berkley in Back Bay)
  • Sorellina — Boston (Modern Italian, Copley Square, Back Bay)
  • Excelsior — Boston (currently closed and being revamped re their web site)
  • Rialto – Cambridge (Harvard Square in Cambridge)

If you are a Spenser fan, have you ever followed his escapades through Boston?

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

8 thoughts on “Spenser’s Boston, A Mystery Tour

  1. I love these books, and the descriptions of the great sights to see in Boston and surrounding areas. Spenser does mention a restaurant I dined in sometime in the 70’s, called St. Botolph’s. It was on St. Botolph’s street, and was quite famous for John’s Pepper Steak.
    And yes, I have read every Spenser book, and many times each. Thanks for an interesting discussion!

  2. Another one of my dream destinations- my paternal grandfather was from Massachusetts- and Boston, specifically. It is my dream to go there one day- it still amazes me that I can travel to so many places but can’t seem to get to the very place I want to visit 🙂

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  4. The Spenser books are among my favorites. I remember I eagerly read all that were out one summer before my husband and I took a trip to Boston together. I love to read books that take place in locales I’ve visited. I just read South of Broad by Pat Conroy which is set in Charleston and it was such a pleasure to read his descriptions of the city that I’ve visited.

  5. I can’t think of any Boston writers per say but Massachusetts has a long literary history. Alcott, Walden and Hawthorne just off the top of my head. My grandparents used to live near Louisa May Alcott’s childhood home, Fruitlands and it was one of my favorite places to visit as a child.
    .-= Stephanie´s last blog ..Wednesday Postcard: Recife, Brazil =-.

    1. You’re right, Kerry, the early Spenser books are good guides to Cambridge, and thanks for the restaurant rec. Stephanie–when I start writing about the great U.S. road trip through literature, MA has loads to contribute. I love hisotry, but I still love mystery novels for a sense of today’s place.

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