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. Unlike Parker, however, Spenser hardly grows older. He was 37 when introduced in The Godwulf Manuscript and is now (mid-October 2006) some 49½ years old, according to the "Bullets-and-Beer formula, aging 12½ years for about 36 years of real time. This requires some retconning—Spenser stopped making reference to his military service in the Korean War as an eighteen-year old, as he did in the first novels — although in 2006's Hundred Dollar Baby Spenser mentions being on "R and R" in Japan before going back to the war, although exactly which war is not made clear.
The other major character in the Spenser novels is his close friend Hawk (which is unlikely to be either of his real names), an equally tough but somewhat shady echo of Spenser himself. 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. 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 who is an invincible man of iron.
Spenser was 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, for example in Walking Shadow and the pilot episode of Spenser: For Hire said he was a Boston Police detective), and regularly seeks help from (or sometimes butts heads with) Martin Quirk (originally a lieutenant, later a captain) of the Boston Police Department. Among his other police contacts are Sgt. Frank Belson and Detective Lee Farrell, both homicide investigators under Quirk's command; Healy, a captain of the Massachusetts State Police; and Samuelson, an LAPD lieutenant (later promoted to captain, as mentioned in Back Story).
Scotch is Spenser's drink of celebration. 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.".
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. When Spenser was about "ten or twelve", his father, his uncles and Spenser moved to Boston which Spenser's father considered "the Athens of America. Spenser received a football scholarship to Holy Cross, where he played strong safety. Spenser dropped out because he didn't like being ordered around by the coach. 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 named Pearl (who is named after Spenser's childhood dog of the same breed). 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. Author Parker has been photographed on the Spenser series dustjackets with a dog identical to the Pearls.
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 series has also never been released on DVD, though several internet vendors sell bootleg sets of questionable quality.
Several made-for-TV movies based upon the series followed in the early 1990s featuring Robert Urich and Avery Brooks. Beginning in 1999, Joe Mantegna played Spenser in three TV movies on the A&E cable network, with Marcia Gay Harden as Susan.
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 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 which 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 another novel.