Mystery writers know the secret to winning readers is creating winning characters who can move from case to case, book to book -- and occasionally even into a continuing life on television.
Remember "Spenser: For Hire"? Like Erle Stanley Gardner's seemingly eternal "Perry Mason," novelist Robert B. Parker's wry, gourmet-cook private eye returns from series cancellation in a new movie, "Spenser: Ceremony," at 9 o'clock tonight on the Lifetime cable network.
Robert Urich re-creates his role from the 1985 to 1988 ABC series (which was repeated on Lifetime from 1989 through 1992), and Avery Brooks is back as Spenser's taciturn, tough-guy friend, Hawk. Barbara Williams takes up the role of Spenser's girlfriend, Susan.
In truth, the new movie serves the character better than the series did, no doubt because Mr. Parker and wife Joan B. Parker did the screenplay from his novel of the same title.
Spenser is a brooding sort of philosopher shamus, good in a fight but only if he cannot avoid it. He tends to save people from themselves, and from a world that swings innately toward badness and misfortune.
Thus in "Ceremony," his "lady shrink" girlfriend persuades him to take up the trail of April, a 15-year-old runaway (Tanya Allen) who has been drawn into the eddy of Boston's Combat Zone neighborhood, famed for prostitution and pornography.
"Misery is not news. But two days in the Combat Zone and I feel like I've been drinking dishwater," observes Spenser to Susan at one point.
The movie follows the series and book format, with Urich frequently narrating to carry the plot along.
On-location filming helps establish a sense of place that is rare on TV, and the dialogue sometimes gets across the subtle Parker touch. For example, in a bar confrontation with pimps, Spenser is called a "honky."
Hawk retorts, "I prefer the term Caucasian," whereupon he dispatches two thugs. Spenser quizzically repeats the bookish term, and the big guy replies, "I am a liberal."
The plot progresses through not-particularly-surprising developments with a refreshing shortage of violent action, yet a clear sense of peril.
Thus "Spenser: Ceremony" plays pretty much like a Parker novel about the Boston gumshoe, offering an engaging, if not rapid-fire, interval spent with some interesting characters.
The same cast has also completed shooting a second movie, "Spenser: Pale Kings and Princes," to be broadcast sometime in 1994, also on Lifetime.
And two additional Spenser movies-from-novels are planned by producer Norstar Entertainment, although network and telecast dates have not been arranged.
What: "Spenser: Ceremony," starring Robert Urich, Avery Brooks, Barbara Williams and Tanya Allen
When: At 9 tonight
Where: Lifetime cable network
Repeats: Saturday, Tuesday and July 30