Book Review: “Robert B Parker’s Lullaby”, by Ace Atkins


I picked this one up on remainder at Barnes & Noble last week. I discovered the character of Spenser about two years ago, around this time. Took a Spenser book on a road trip to Indiana in May. Since then, I’ve read about two-thirds of them.

The Spenser series is an interesting and often times terrific read. They’re almost like a candy you can mainline right into your bloodstream. I’ve jumped back and forth between the older ones and the newer ones. I haven’t been reading them in chronological order. That’s made the world of crime fiction’s most famous Boston-based private detective a little disjointed, but not cumbersomely so. Probably the most interesting thing about flipping back and forth between the older books and the newer ones is witnessing the evolution of a writer, something that might not have been as evident when the books are read in slow succession as each one was released.

As the series progressed, Parker’s style became leaner and leaner. Some books clock in at barely more than two hundred pages. Some inch up to the two-seventy mark. It’s a rare book that hits three hundred pages. The brevity of language and the brisk storytelling pace led some to claim Parker was “slipping” as he aged, but I disagree. Some books might read better than others, but none failed to entertain or, worse, compromised the character for the purpose of the story.

This might be the longest introduction to a review ever. But I feel it’s important to understand how Parker told the stories of Spenser before we jump into whether his successor, Ace Atkins, hand picked by the Parker estate to carry on the character, succeeded or failed.

So which is it? Did it succeed or fail?

Maybe a bit of both.

As characterizations go, Atkins came pretty close to capturing the voice of the world’s smart-aleck-i-est detective. There are a few misses with the side comments and wisecracks, but they’re few and far between. What is perhaps more noticeable is how heavy-handed the smartass is laid on. There comes a point where you begin to wonder whether Atkins’s Spenser is capable of a serious remark or any serious introspection, something Parker would lapse in and out of. It rounded out his character very well, but for the purposes of “Lullaby”, Atkins shies away from introspection.

The dialogue certainly snaps. But it’s far more profane than a typical Parker outing. Parker used obscenities in his books the way Spielberg used the color red in “Jaws”: when you saw it, it was blood and it was designed to elicit a visceral reaction. So too did Parker use curse words in his books. They were there, no doubt, he certainly wasn’t a prude. But they were only there when needed. Atkins meanwhile laces the four letter words in and out of the dialogue with a kind of reckless abandon.

But if the obscenities are a little more hard R than soft R, it’s less noticeable than Atkins treatment of the world of Spenser, or rather, the world of Robert B Parker. In many ways, it feels like Atkins is trying to establish his bona fides for writing a Spenser novel by pulling out references to as many previous Spenser books as he can. He mentions everything from Hawk being shot by Ukrainians (a reference to “Cold Service”) to Spenser having a wood carving hobby (reference to “The Godwulf Manuscript”). Between the character traits and the previous history, Atkins is overly zealous in demonstrating his Spenserian knowledge. This shows in his use of characters themselves as well. We get appearances from the usually cast (Susan, Hawk, Quirk, Belsen), but we get an onslaught of minor characters or references to minor characters (the Brozs, Gino Fish, Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus, Ty-Bop, Junior, Paul, Z Sixkill). It’s nearly overwhelming to have so much of Parker’s cast one one stage such that it feels like a reunion show.

But so that you don’t come away thinking that the novel is a failure, I have to say that I’ve never felt more more danger for Spenser & Co. Without Parker to guide the disposition of his creations, Atkins may (or may not) be at liberty to axe one or two. As the books draws to a close, a slow investigation, in which much time is spent in cars staking out people, accelerates toward a violent conclusion. It was in these final moments that I feared for Spenser and Hawk in a way I had not in previous Spenser books.

All in all, it was an interesting read, at times fun, at times distracting. As hard boiled crime goes it was good, if not standard fair. In the end, though, it was certainly not Parker.

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