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Over the years, in detective fiction, we have had the little old lady as private eye, the obese gourmet as private eye, the rabbi as private eye, and other distinctive types who deliver justice in their inimitable ways. Among the more recent private eyes is an athlete—Spenser. No given name. Just Spenser; creation of Robert B. Parker, and a helluva guy.

Spenser is a former professional boxer, a dedicated weightlifter, a serious long-distance jogger. He handles his cases (most of them around Boston) like an athlete: the direct approach, only rarely the end run, a certain amount of macho. This last attribute is the subject of thoughtful running debate between Spenser and his girl friend, Susan Silverman—just one of the contemporary themes that make each of the nine Spenser adventures a pertinent reflection and exposition of life in the '70s and '80s. As most athletes seem to be, too, Spenser is more than casually concerned with food and drink and sex. He prefers to prepare the food himself (a process Parker describes in lavish detail), drink Amstel beer and have Susan monogamously.

Spenser has a friend, a fellow former pug named Hawk—just Hawk—whom he calls on regularly for yeomanly assistance. Hawk, a black, is in my opinion one of the great inventions of modern fiction. He is so overpowering a character that Parker uses him very sparingly; if he didn't, Hawk would just take over every book in the series. Hawk's gigs with Susan on black-white stereotype themes are far more than merely hilarious.

You don't have to start with Spenser's first case, The Godwulf Manuscript (1974), but it would be a shame to miss even one. Nearly all are available in paperback (from Dell) and in hardcover (from Delacorte). The latest Spenser is Ceremony, not yet available in paperback. I liked Early Autumn best. Another in the series, The Widening Gyre (Delacorte, $12.95), is due in April. Oh, you lucky devil, if you haven't read any of'em yet.