Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic by Ace Atkins: Atkins delivers a solid dose of Old Boston Magic

Old Black MagicRobert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic

by Ace Atkins
Series: Spenser, #46

Hardcover, 319 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Read: May 2 – 3, 2018

Wow. The Forty-Sixth Spenser novel. Atkins’ seventh, too — it’s hard to believe. I can still remember some of these as clearly as if I read them yesterday — I’m a little vague on some of them, I have to admit (sorry Bad Business and Painted Ladies), but by and large, this is one of those series that’s defined me as a reader. This is one of those that in years to come that I’m going to remember pretty clearly, too, I’m glad to report.

Also, I’m pretty sure that 46 books in, nothing I say here is going to get the series a new reader. Still, I want to talk about it some.

So here’s the pitch: Locke, an older P.I. and friend/associate of Spenser, comes to him for help — he’d like Spenser to take over one of his cases, as she’s fighting a losing battle with a medical problem. Twenty years ago, a Boston museum was robbed — two paintings and one Picasso sketch were stolen. The Boston Police, the FBI and he have turned over every rock they can think of, he’s traveled the word just to find them. But he’s gotten no where — but there’s some new information coming to light — and with the statute of limitations about to kick in, there’s probably no better time to find the painting then now. Spenser agree and plunges right into the hunt.

Whether you’re Spenser or Nero Wolfe, the worst type of client has to be a committee or board* — a committee that’s not entirely sure they want you to work for them is even worse. The museum committee is led by a classic stuffed shirt, Spenser’s always fun to read when he’s antagonizing the pompous. We’ve also got another Spenser trope — a tough, no-nonsense, hard-to-impress client that Spenser slowly wins over — in the museum director. Putting the two of those together is a good combination. The committee has their own replacement for Locke — an anti-Spenser. British, polished, cultured (he’s probably forgotten more about art than Spenser has ever known), not obviously prone to violence, with an approach to this case that’s very different from Spenser’s. As much as I disliked him, I wish we’d gotten a little more time with him.

This is a novel largely dependent on the non-regular characters — clients, witnesses, sources, suspects. There’s no Hawk, no Sixkill, limited Susan, not enough Pearl — so who does Spenser talk to? Henry (a little more than usual), Frank, Quirk, and Rita — and a couple of chats with Vinnie Morris. Things are still not good with Vinnie, but there might be room in that direction — and common enemies can help a lot. Given the Gino Fish connection, of course we have to have a lot of Vinnie.

Spenser’s approach to this case is classic — he goes around talking to every witness, suspect that he can — annoying some, charming some, learning a very little. Then he moves on to the next and the next, and then circles back to the first. Prying a little more, and a little more. This is a very talk-y book. There’s the threat of violence — and even some actual violence — but most of the actual violence was associated with the original burglars, so we hear about it, but don’t see it. Atkin’s solid take on Parker-dialgoue means that this is a fast, fun read. And that’s fine with me.

Back when Robert B. Parker was writing multiple series, one of the fun aspects was watching characters from one series (typically the longer-running, Spenser books) show up in one of the others. Watching Capt. Healy’s interactions with Jesse Stone, for example, provided an interesting counter-point to the way Healy and Spenser got along. Now that there are three authors actively writing the Spenser-verse series, there’s an added twist to that. Recently (long enough ago that I don’t feel too bad saying it), Reed Farrel Coleman killed off Gino Fish. There are huge chunks of this book that are little else than seeing the effects of that death in Boston’s criminal society (for lack of a better term).

How do we get to Gino Fish? When it comes to Art Crimes — especially higher-end stuff — and the resulting fencing, at that time in Boston everything came through Gino’s fingers. Between the references to the late Gino and the fact that the crime in question took place two decades ago, there’s a lot of history covered here as Spenser talks to various criminals/criminal associates while hunting for these paintings. I do mean a lot of history — going back to events in Mortal Stakes (my first encounter with the series) and characters from The Godwulf Manuscript (the first in the series). Yes, there’s a certain element of this being fan-service-y nostalgia on Atkins part. As a serviced-fan, I’m not complaining. But I think it’s more, it’s the kind of series that Parker and Atkins have given us — one that is very aware of its past and draws on it always. (there’s an interesting contrast to be made with the Jesse Stone series on this front).

If you’re looking at this as a mystery novel, or focusing on the plot — I’m not sure how successful it is (better than many, but I’m not sure it’s up to Atkins’ typical standards). But, if you look at it as some time with old friends — Spenser primarily, but even Quirk, Belson, Henry, etc. — it gets better, especially if you’ve got as much history with these characters as many readers do. Throw in the atmosphere, the perfect voice, the longer-term character moves, and you’ve got yourself a heckuva read. Spenser #46 is as entertaining as you could ask for and I’m already looking forward to #47.


* Yes, it bothers me that I can only come up with two names for this truncated list. I can’t imagine that other P. I.’s are immune to this kind of client, but I can’t think of another example. I’ll probably lose sleep over this memory failure.

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4 Stars

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