Written by Ace Atkins — For fans of hardboiled private eye fiction, Robert B Parker is an iconic name. Parker was a lifelong admirer of hardboiled crime fiction who wrote his PhD dissertation about Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald. In 1973, Parker published The Godwulf Manuscript. It featured a new hardboiled private detective: Spenser. The Godwulf Manuscript led to 39 more Spenser novels, several of which were published after Parker’s death in January 2010. Robert Urich also starred in a 1980s television series based on Parker’s novels.
Spenser was easily (whether deservedly or not) the most beloved private eye of his era. The first half-dozen or so Spenser novels are genre classics. Parker was a master of tough guy dialogue, and Spenser is a smart aleck exboxer as adept with his mouth as his fists. Later Spenser novels, while entertaining, became more formulaic. Parker would churn out several books a year in addition to several other series of novels he started along the way, and quality suffered.
When Robert B Parker died, Ace Atkins was chosen by Parker’s estate to continue Spenser’s adventures. Lullaby is Atkins’ first Spenser novel, and he has a great deal to prove to the legions of faithful Spenser fans. While no-one will likely place Atkins in Raymond Chandler’s company – Parker was chosen by Chandler’s estate to complete Chandler’s unfinished Poodle Springs – Ace Atkins has nonetheless crafted a solid mystery novel that is a worthy addition to the Spenser canon.
Lullaby begins with 14-year-old Mattie Sullivan coming to Spenser and asking him to find her mother’s killer. Julie Sullivan was killed four years prior, and Mattie is sure that the man doing time for the murder would never harm her mother. Mattie, from South Boston, is a tough customer – and that appeals to Spenser. So he takes her case in exchange for a box of doughnuts.
Spenser gets more than doughnuts, however. The night of the murder, Mattie saw two thugs loading her mother into a car, but nobody wanted to pay attention to a 10-year-old. Spenser does, at his own peril. The two thugs Mattie saw are now connected to some heavy hitters in the underworld and Spenser has to take them all on to get justice for Julie Sullivan. He does, because underneath his breezy tough guy exterior is a deeply sympathetic heart – never more sympathetic than when interacting with his longtime ladylove, Susan Silverman.
Susan, Hawk, Pearl the Wonder Dog and other favorite characters created by Parker are back, and endearingly portrayed by Atkins. The tough guy banter between Spenser and Hawk is classic Parker. Atkins lovingly reproduces Parker’s idiosyncratic first person narration that defined the Spenser books. Spenser is as sarcastic as ever, and still notices and narrates what he and all the other characters are wearing.
Parker’s books were deeply grounded in the Boston milieu that he himself inhabited. Ace Atkins, who resides in Mississippi, did a very good job including a great many rich details about Boston. Most of the action in Lullaby takes place in the distinctive neighborhood of South Boston. Dennis Lehane isn’t likely to envy Atkins’ portrayal of Southie, but Atkins succeeds in making it vivid nonetheless.
While Lullaby makes for a loving pastiche, it is only middling as a detective novel. Mattie Sullivan is obnoxious through most of the book. We are supposed to sympathise with her because she is from a slum and has no parents; this is also Atkins’ explanation for why she has no endearing qualities. For the final part of the book, Mattie ceases to be a character and simply serves as a maguffin. The guns blazing ending would be more at home in a Western than anything that Hammett or Chandler ever wrote.
But it is better to enjoy Lullaby for what it is than to bemoan what it is not. Spenser and supporting characters are lovingly and capably rendered by Atkins, ensuring Parker’s franchise will live on. Lullaby will not supplant the first several Spenser novels that made Parker’s reputation. But it certainly bests most of the recent ones, with their rushed and slapdash narration. Atkins gives Spenser his attention, and makes it worthwhile for readers to do so as well.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars
US readers click here to order a copy from Amazon.