New/Old Spenser from a True Ace

4 May

By JOHN DeMERS

ROBERT B. PARKER’S LULLABY. A Spenser Novel by Ace Atkins. Putnam, $26.95.

When crime writer Robert B. Parker died at his desk in January 2010, many observers noted that America had lost two treasures: the writer himself and his best known creation, the smartassed, quick-fisted and profoundly moral Boston PI with only one name, Spenser. “Like the English poet,” Spenser would always explain, as the generations of villains and victims turned and nobody knew who he even meant.

Now, thanks to good old American capitalism, it seems America has lost only one treasure after all.

In the way these things work more and more, a younger crime writer named Ace Atkins (who appropriately now cites Parker as his foundational inspiration) has been hired to keep the Spenser series alive – just as Michael Brandman has been hired to push ahead with Parker’s other biggest success, starring troubled small town police chief Jesse Stone. With the publication May 1 of the new Spenser novel, I tucked into and enjoyed the new Jesse as well, Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues. And yes, it absolutely is amazing what they can do these days!

If at times Atkins (a successful author in his own right, based on a farm outside Oxford, Miss., a long way from Spenser’s gritty, snow-and-ice Boston) seems to be parodying the great man, it’s a loving parody. And really, in his later years, like most writing institutions from Twain to Hemingway to Updike, Parker was accused of parodying himself. There is, in fact, so much homage in all hardboiled fiction – Atkins who’s channeling Parker who was always channeling Raymond Chandler – it’s hard to say where one set of hard fists ends and the other begins. What’s important, it seems to me after reading past midnight to finish Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby in one sitting – what’s important is that The Work goes on.

And for this, Atkins’ first outing in Spenser’s shoes, everybody shows up to help us feel at home: good guys Benson and Quirk (who sometimes help the bad guys), bad guys Vinnie Morris and Tony Marcus (who sometimes help the good guys), Spenser’s analytical Jewish shrink girlfriend Susan – and yes, even Hawk, the super-sized black man who speaks hilarious black dialect till even a gumshoe named after a dead-white-guy English poet can’t help joining in. In the universe Spenser and Parker made their own – a familiar one for American noir, but simply done lots better – there are indeed absolute right and absolute wrong, there are guys who choose to devote their lives to either, and amidst chaos, corruption, confusion and sudden violence, there’s really only one man who can set things straight.

In Lullaby, the issues could not be clearer: a now-14-year-old girl who first watched her mother fade into men and drugs and finally watched her carried off to be murdered hires our hero (for a dozen doughnuts, in the city of Dunkin’, no less) to prove the guy who went to prison didn’t do it. There you have it – the failings of a system that doesn’t care, the loss of innocence of a child, a mystery in need of solving, a wrong in need of righting. As Susan is ever-quick to point out, there are layers within layers to all this, with even the happy endings having plenty of sad. Just as the Sox get rained out at Fenway in Lullaby when they’re actually about the win one, the world of Spenser is filled with dead bodies and some very wistful truths.

Whatever I think of all the “dead white guys” still writing new versions of their original bestsellers, we are lucky that Spenser – increasingly like Boston’s own Dark Knight – still drinks excellent Scotch, whips up some very quirky meals, and awaits our troubled call.

Photo: Ace Atkins. Not Robert B. Parker.

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