Robert B. Parker's Lullaby
By Ace Atkins
(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 310 pages, $26.95)
In Pursuit of Spenser: Mystery Writers on Robert B. Parker and the Creation of an American Hero
Edited by Otto Penzler
(BenBella Books, 257 pages, $14.95 paper)
The reviewer's first job is to say if a book is any good and should be read or not. Not so easy in the case of Lullaby, the first Spenser novel written by Ace Atkins after the death in 2010 of Bob Parker. The book is a more than passable entry in the private investigator genre. But the bar on this one is set impossibly high by Putnam's, by the Parker family, and most of all by the expectations of the legions of Spenser fans.
Countless contemporary crime writers have tried to imitate Parker's lean and brightly humorous style, usually without attribution or success. But Atkins was chosen by Parker's family and his publishers to be Bob Parker, and to keep Spenser and his considerable book sales alive.
On the evidence of Atkins' first effort, it's almost certainly a bridge too far. The history of writers chosen to continue to work and characters of other writers is, to put it charitably, uneven. There are both artistic and marketing reasons why Parker's name is at the top of this book and several times larger than Atkins', though Parker had nothing to do with the writing.
Lullaby is better than I expected it would be, and the master's voice is often heard in its pages. Atkins knows and respects his Parker. And some readers familiar with the tough but literate Boston P.I. and his world will enjoy the book. But Spenser purists -- there are oh so many of these -- will be brought up short by instances where Atkins tries hard to be Parkeresque but renders false notes. There are too many disappointments in this otherwise skilled literary impersonation for me to give the buy sign.
It's an easier call with In Pursuit of Spenser. Any Spenser fan, I count myself one, will enjoy these 13 entertaining and often insightful essays about Parker and his taller alter ego. The first entry in the collection is a splendid piece by Atkins himself, a Spenser enthusiast since his sophomore year in college. Other household name contributors, household at least for the fans of detective fiction, include Dennis Lehane, Lawrence Block, Jeremiah Healy, and Loren D. Estleman. Writers who knew and understood Parker and were influenced by him.
It has been difficult for writers of crime fiction in the last decades of the 20th century and beyond not to be influenced by Parker. His voice and style were that distinctive and appealing. His book sales that impressive.
Readers are liable to encounter a Spenseresque line in almost any contemporary crime novel. Popular crime writer Harlan Coben spoke for the many when he said that 90 percent of current writers of detective fiction admit Parker has had an influence on their work while "the rest of us lie about it." By way of full disclosure, I abandoned my own last attempt at fiction writing, featuring a Tampa PI, after re-reading the chapters I had put together and concluding they were just Spenser with palm trees. And not good Spenser at that.
In 39 very entertaining novels, beginning in 1973 with The Godwulf Manuscript, Parker gave us the tough, smart, and literate private investigator named Spenser (no first name is ever given). It was not Parker's plots, but his ever-engaging characters, animated by Parker's distinct voice and style, brimming with intelligence and humor, that enabled Parker to sell tens of millions of copies of novels featuring Spenser and, later, Paradise (Massachusetts) Police Chief Jesse Stone. (Yes, he of the Tom Selleck made-for-TV movies.)
The reason Spenser is of interest to a conservative audience like TAS readers is his personification of the manly virtues, basic decency, and the honorable life built around work and personal responsibility. No moral relativist is our Spenser. For those who see shades of gray in the choices we face, Spenser counsels keep looking. The black and white will emerge. As will the understanding that justice and the law are often different things. Spenser's brand of tolerance is much more attractive than the preachy variety we get from the cultural Left, a tolerance that's not tolerant at all.
Spenser is neither an idealist nor a cynic (as so many of the better known literary detectives are -- See Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe). Like any good conservative, whether or not he cottons to the label, as Cambridge resident Parker may well not have, Spenser is a realist. He deals with the world as it is. He may be a knight errant. But he's a knight with his feet firmly on the ground.
Parker through Spenser also deals intelligently with such matters as integrity, courage, friendship, and what it means to be a man or woman in our gender-fluid society. He takes women, even feminists, seriously, though not the geek-branch variety. He never for a moment buys into the fashionable nonsense that men and women are, in all important ways, pretty much the same, just products of our conditioning.
When I've reviewed Parker books for TAS I usually get some blow back from readers who insist that Spenser and his creators are liberals. I demur. I suppose readers could cherry-pick from the novels to come up with the right-wing bad guy here, or places there where Parker is trying a little too hard with a black or gay character to show his heart is in the right place. And he takes shrinks and psychotherapy more seriously than they deserve to be (Parker's wife is in some branch of the head trade).
But Spenser's approach, taken whole cloth, reflects a kind of autonomy and individualism that most conservatives will find attractive. He takes the properly dismissive view of authority when that authority is abused or is just being exercised to control others. (No beef from conservatives here.) And the novels are certainly non-partisan. I've read most of the 39. Perhaps the words Republican or Democrat appear somewhere, but I don't recall tripping over either.
If PI writers had their own Mt. Rushmore, the four carved figures would be Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, and Robert B. Parker. (OK, OK, John D. MacDonald might get some write-in votes too.) Parker is more amusing than the lot, and entertains us with a world view that most conservatives will find simpatico. Ace Atkins is an able writer with a back list of books, some of which feature his own series character. But, as most readers of Lullaby will likely conclude, he is not Bob Parker, and should probably not try to be.
Parker's 39 Spenser novels are still in print. I raise them up as a better use of time than Atkins' faux Spenser. As style is the most important element in detective fiction, and Parker the ultimate stylist, his books are imminently re-readable. It's not even a serious drawback if you remember who done it. You don't read Spenser novels to see who done it. By a few pages in, readers will be laughing, and beguiled enough by the trip not to care who done it. You know Spenser will find out anyway.