“Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby: A Spenser Novel”
Author: Ace Atkins
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Robert B. Parker was a major detective fiction franchise, having published 49 Spenser novels, 9 Jesse Stone novels, 6 Sunny Randall novels and 14 other miscellaneous books.
His fans were certainly dismayed when Parker died in January of 2010. Would there be no more Parker books? He did not leave piles of completed manuscripts, as Barbara Cartland is said to have done.
No need for concern.
Parker’s publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, has already produced a Jesse Stone novel, authored by Michael Brandman, and has chosen the Alabama writer Ace Atkins to carry on with the Spenser series. (Putnam’s at least is being forthright about this. I was in graduate school with the man who is the present V. C. Andrews, the horror writer; he is the third Andrews, and the original was a woman.)
Bobbie Ann Mason in her study of girl detective novels “The Girl Sleuth: On the Trail of Nancy Drew, Judy Bolton, and Cherry Ames” tells us that many children’s series were the products of little literary factories. Edward Stratemeyer of Grossett & Dunlap created Honey Bunch, the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift. Stratemeyer had so many ideas for novels he sent them to other writers who filled out his three-page plot outlines “for a flat fee—$50 to 250 per book…. Stratemeyer published over 700 books under approximately 70 pseudonyms.”
Putnam’s having been perfectly straightforward, the only real question to ask is: does Ace Atkins pull it off? Does “Lullaby” read like, feel like, a real Spenser novel? And the answer is yes.
Atkins, author of 11 crime novels, has clearly immersed himself in Spenser lore, and Spenser fans will have to be very picky indeed to be disappointed.
The plot, to begin with, is typical. Fourteen-year-old Mattie Sullivan from the projects hires Spenser to learn who really killed her mother some four years earlier. It is not quite pro bono. She pays him with a box of doughnuts.
A small-time hood, Mickey Green, was convicted and is in Walpole Prison, but he didn’t do it.
Spenser, ever the knight errant, investigates at Walpole and in several crummy Southie bars and soon is in the middle of a revived gang turf war in Boston. As he gets closer to figuring out who killed Julie Sullivan powerful forces rise up to stop him
He takes council and comfort with his girlfriend, Susan Silverman, psychotherapist and Harvard Ph.D. Atkins has nailed Dr. Silverman. She takes “micro-sips” from her drink, eats bird-like nibbles: “She could make a martini olive last for several bites.” She loves Spenser thoroughly while wishing he were not in such a rough business and knowing he can do no other.
For more practical help, there is Hawk, Spenser’s terrifying African-American sidekick. Hawk is cool in every particular: shaved head, beautiful clothes and car, seemingly without conscience or even emotions. Hawk and Spenser duke it out and shoot it out several times with Boston’s worst.
Local cops Quirk and Belson are brought in as needed.
Atkins pays attention to detail. He mentions Spenser’s history—raised by a father and uncles on a ranch in Wyoming—as Parker always does. He alludes to Spenser’s penchant for taking in strays, the Cree Indian Zebulon Sixkill in the last novel and Paul Giacomin earlier.
Spenser is still fond of dropping literary quotes on unsuspecting others: “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” Or “Therein lies the rub” (the first is from “Henry VI,” the second a near-quote from “Hamlet”). And, when a bookie is beaten up, Hawk remarks casually, “Lots of blood in that old man,” which I take to be a paraphrasing of Macbeth on the murder of King Duncan: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.”
There are 63 short chapters. Spenser’s voice as he tells the story is nearly perfect. Atkins gives him plenty of sarcasm; he’s a wise guy. A small quibble might be that Atkins does not—who could?—match the dry, terse spare dialog of Parker. Atkins’ Spenser utters longer sentences and longer descriptions. Otherwise, Spenser lives.