Continuing another writer's series is a thankless task—you can try to imitate, in which case you usually fail, or you can try different directions, in which case you risk alienating the fan base of the original characters.You could go post-modern, and try for something that makes ironic commentary on the original, but then what's the point? Or you can ignore the whole problem all together, in which case you're probably a big-name writer handed the next huge contract for a James Bond novel. I wrote about this phenomenon when Don Winslow wrote a prequel to Travanian's Shibumi (you can read that here).
At least three of Robert B Parker's series are being continued by other writers. I've written about Michael Brandman's Jesse Stone here; he's faithful more to the TV movies Brandman produces and has written than to the novels. Now comes Ace Atkins writing a new Spenser novel, and I have to say that as continuations go, Atkins has come very close indeed to the original.
He does this without being slavish, either. In fact, the whole premise of the book, Spenser being hired by a 14-year old from the projects of Southie, who believes her mother's real killers are running free while an innocent man sits in jail, provides a good dose of cross-generational comedy which Parker would probably appreciate. Atkins also refers specifically to Paul Giacomin, the alienated teen Spenser taught to be a man, Hemingway-fashion earlier in the series (Parker also had Randall do the same thing, from the other gender prspective, with a young girl). But Mattie Sullivan is a different person, and Atkins is excellent in the way he shows her resisting Spenser's efforts, not so much because she doesn't need something, but because it doesn't fit—she's already more of a Hawk, and it's with Hawk she instinctively bonds. It may seem a small touch, but it's an indication that Atkins isn't going to stick slavishly to the formula.
He writes just slightly different from Parker—a little less of the punch line finish to each chapter, a little more involved in the description. This highlights Parker's greatest skill, which was to draw a setting or a character in very quickly, but very perceptively, which put the reader into the detective's shoes. In first person narration, you're supposed to be seeing what the narrator sees, and if the narrator is as confident and perceptive as Spenser, you ought to reap the benefit.
The story goes back to a number of old Spenser favourites—including hang boss Joe Broz and his son, and if it has a flaw it may be that the main villain is offstage for too long, and we perhaps don't see enough of his psychopathy. But it's hard to miss the parallels with the Whitey Bulger case in Boston, and Atkins has also done a pretty good job, for a Southerner, of sketching in the Hub; the research trips must've been fun.
Atkins' Spenser is, if anything, a bit more pro-active with Susan—and that reminds me of the problem which has bothered me, probably inordinately, in the later series. Dedicated readers know Spenser was a Korean War veteran, which means today he is either in his eighties or dead. Now this is a fiction character, a relatively mythic one at that, and if Parker, or Atkins, want to keep him existing out of time that would be fine with me. But when Spenser specifically references his fighting against Jersey Joe Walcott (which was established long ago in the series). Well, the youngest guys who fought Jersey Joe were born in 1928 (Rex Layne and Harold Johnson) and they would be 85 years old were they alive today, which they aren't. I think we can all accept that the Spenser in this novel is not 85 years old; his libido, fitness, and ability to get shot in the shoulder and not even notice it would suggest he's probably in his early 60s. So why mention Jersey Joe at all?
But most readers won't notice or care; in fact I wonder how many know who Jersey Joe was and what it meant that Spenser had been good enough to get beaten handily by him? It's not very important, because Atkins' continuation of Spenser is about as faithful and yet creative as anyone could hope.
Robert B Parker's Lullaby
by Ace Atkins
Berkley Books $9.99 ISBN: 9780425260982
NOTE: This review will appear also at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk