Sixkill, by Robert B. Parker
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 293 pages, $26.95)
Sixkill, a very readable Spenser novel, is Bob Parker’s last case. The Parker family and mystery readers worldwide suffered an irreparable loss in January of 2010 when Parker died suddenly at his desk. Sixkill is the last of three manuscripts — two Spensers and a Jesse Stone novel — Parker left behind at his premature and much-lamented departure.
In Sixkill, Parker’s 39th Spenser novel since 1973’s The Godwulf Manuscript, Parker takes on a favorite target, Hollywood in its shallow greediness, through the character of Jumbo Nelson: fat, crass, arrogant, and capable of the crime he stands accused of. But did he do it? Boston P.I. Spenser, always a bear for the truth, must find out, even though his investigation puts him in the way of some lethal gangsters ready to kill him to protect the movie company’s valuable asset, to wit: Jumbo. Readers will learn that it’s not entirely Jumbo’s acting talent that makes him valuable.
This latest and last Parker tale is told in the spare and insistent prose with crisp and amusing dialogue that Parker fans have enjoyed for decades and other crime fiction writers have tried to imitate for the same period, usually with slightly off-plumb results. There are the acute Spenser observations on the social scene, and the usual gospel according to Parker on loyalty, friendship, responsibility, work, and the manly virtues, the sort of thing that has set his fiction apart from and well above the general run of the mystery/thriller/crime genre and helped Parker’s books sell somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million copies.
In a seemly world this would be the time for Parker’s legions of fans to render a sad but grateful farewell to Spenser and Stone and content themselves with re-reading their favorites from Parker’s long backlist, almost all of which is still in print and available. But even though their creator has left us, there will be more literary appearances for both Spenser and Stone.
In a ghoulish business decision, clearly egged on more by MBAs than by readers, Putnam’s and the Spenser estate have arranged for these two popular characters to continue in the hands of new authors. Hollywood producer and screenwriter Michael Brandman, a long-time Parker associate and co-writer with Parker of the Jesse Stone made-for-TV movies, will continue the series based on the Paradise, Massachusetts police chief. Novelist Ace Atkins of Oxford, Mississippi, will write the stories about Boston P.I. Spenser (no first name is ever given).
Book publishing is not going through the best of times just now. So it’s not surprising that Putnam’s would be reluctant to give up the cash cows that Spenser and Stone novels have reliably been. And in a period of reduced book sales and the E-book jumble, cash cow has been defined down. But the history of writers taking over the characters of other writers is uneven at best.
Let’s see, Vince Lardo wrote the McNally series after Lawrence Sanders. With the approval of the Rex Stout estate, Robert Goldsborough wrote seven Nero Wolfe novels. There were various Ian Flemings after Fleming himself went to that big safe house in the sky. Erich Van Lustbader wrote some Bourne novels after Robert Ludlum. Uncountable writers have written Sherlock Holmes stories.
Even Parker himself got into the act, finishing Raymond Chandler’s Poodle Springs in 1989, a novel Chandler left unfinished at his death in 1959. Parker later wrote Perchance to Dream, billed as a continuation of Chandler’s dated but still readable The Big Sleep of 1939. But though Philip Marlowe was abroad in the land again under Parker’s hand in these two books, Parker’s Marlowe certainly sounded more like the lively Spenser than like Chandler’s world-weary detective.
So we’ll just have to wait and see what Atkins and Brandman come up with. I’ll certainly read their first efforts. I wish both of these guys well, but this may be a good place to invoke the cliché about hope over expectation. Many have tried to copy Parker’s deceptively simple style and reproduce his narrative energy with less than the results readers were looking for.
In Brandman’s case we already know that the last two Jesse Stone movies (yes, this is the series starring Tom Selleck as Jesse “I’m the police chief — I know everything” Stone), which are based on original scripts, are not as lively and watchable as the earlier ones based on Parker’s stories. And screen-writing isn’t always the best entré into novel-writing, a very different business.
The choice of the 40-year-old Atkins to continue the Spenser series seems downright peculiar. Atkins is a talented enough writer with 10 novels under his belt. But just how the thoroughly Southern Atkins — the Auburn graduate is from Alabama, got his journalistic experience writing for the Tampa Tribune, and now teaches journalism in Mississippi — is going to take over the voice of the thoroughly Boston wise-acre Spenser is something many, including me, are waiting to see. Most concerning is that the 1.5 of Atkins novels I’ve read have been humor-free zones, very un-Parker-like.
We won’t have to wait long to see where this is going. Atkins’ first Spenser novel comes out in the spring of 2012. Brandman’s first Stone novel, Robert B. Parker’s Killing the Blues, comes out September 13. Brandman and Atkins may strike chords with Parker’s many readers and keep the franchises rolling. Or they may fold their tents after a book or two. But none of this should distract us from appreciating Parker and making him a first-ballot inductee into the Mystery Writers Hall of Fame. In fact, to use a phrase familiar to Parker regulars, we’d be fools not to.