Thursday, May 3, 2012

"Well, Maybe," He Said

Robert B. Parker's death in 2010 left crime fiction fans seriously lost. Although his quality had deteriorated for much of the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, it had picked up a little and left his fans missing him a lot more than they might have otherwise. In April of 2011, Parker's estate and his publisher announced that two of his series, the Jesse Stone novels and the mainstay Spenser series, would continue with two new authors writing the novels.

Michael Brandman took his swing at Jesse Stone last fall, and quite frankly he stunk. Killing the Blues wasn't Jesse Stone, wasn't Robert B. Parker and wasn't even very good on its own merits. Putnam hasn't learned its lesson yet; Amazon lists a second Brandman Stone novel scheduled for release this September.

Ace Atkins, a mystery and crime writer with a pretty good track record, was tapped to continue Spenser. His Lullaby hit bookshelves Tuesday and as a Parker homage/continuation, is everything Killing the Blues wasn't. It's still not Parker, but our lead man is recognizable as Spenser, and it's a pretty good story to boot.

Young Mattie Sullivan lives in a housing project and is trying to raise her even younger twin sisters with only minimal help from her alcoholic grandmother. Four years ago, Mattie's mother was murdered and she believes the man arrested didn't do it, because she saw two other men drag her mother off in a car. But no one believed her, and she wants to hire Spenser to find her mother's killer or killers. As Spenser starts trying to revisit those events, he finds that they are part of a much bigger -- and more dangerous -- picture, and he will need to be as tough as he's ever been in order to finish out what seemed at first a simple matter.

Atkins seems to have made the wise choice to write Parker's characters rather than try to write with Parker's voice. Rather than asking, "What would Bob write here?" Lullaby reads as though he asked, "What would Spenser do here?" "What would Spenser say here?" In doing that, he captures enough of that voice to convince a reader he or she really is following along with Spenser, his ladylove Susan Silverman and his frequent partner Hawk, or at the very least Spenser's younger brother (Atkins was born in 1970; Parker in 1932. The generational difference shows through).

The match isn't perfect -- we see the characters as though they were a little blurry even though recognizable. Some of the Spenserisms -- listening to old jazz music, cooking different dishes and so on -- seem a little forced. Atkins doesn't quite have a handle on Hawk yet either, it seems. He should improve with repeated outings and even if he doesn't, this version of Spenser, Hawk and Susan is not nearly as dishwatery dull as is Brandman's of Jesse Stone and Paradise, Mass.

Atkins' Spensers probably won't be keepers on my shelves like Parker's are. I don't really think I'll ever feel a need to reread Lullaby, but then some of the Parker outings occupy their spaces for completeness' sake and aren't likely rereads either. But if Lullaby is an indicator, I won't mind picking these up and I'll probably enjoy them.

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