Classic Spenser: God Save the Child by Robert B. Parker

Classic Spenser

God Save the Child

God Save the Child

by Robert B. Parker
Series: Spenser, #2

Mass Market Paperback, 202 pg.
Dell Publishing Co., 1974

Read: February 25, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

He hunched the chair forward and wrote a check on the edge of my desk with a translucent ballpoint pen. Bartlett Construction was imprinted in the upper left corner of the check—I was going to be a business expense. Deductible. One keg of 8d nails, 500 feet of 2×4 utility grade, one gumshoe, 100 gallons of creosote stain. I took the check without looking at it and slipped it folded into my shirt pocket, casual, like I got them all the time and it was just something to pass along to my broker. Or maybe I’d buy some orchids with it.

A nice bit of description, a bit of wit and a Nero Wolfe reference. Not a bad start.

I’m not certain, but I think this was the first Spenser novel that I purchased, and I’d read a handful before then (my then local library started with book 3). It was a new copy (an extravagance for me then), and justing by the state it’s in, I may have to buy myself a replacement copy after one or two more reads. Actually, it may not survive another whole read (that back cover is holding on by strength of will).

Which is just a long-winded way to say that it’s not like I read this with fresh eyes.

Roger (call him “Rog”) and Marge Bartlett have come to Spenser for help finding their fourteen-year-old son, Kevin, who has seemingly run away from home with the clothes on his back and his pet guinea pig. He’s been gone a week, and the local police haven’t been able to do much. Spenser assures them that unlike the police, the only thing he has to focus on his hunting for Kevin—not breaking up fights, ticketing speeders, arresting drunks, etc.—”Also, maybe I’m smarter than they are.”

During their initial consultation, we see that the couple is also a bit more focused on other things than Kevin. Marge is sure to work in references to her acting and cooking classes, she’s a self-described creative person who has to express it. Rog seems a bit more focused on the bottom line (which he might need to be, since Marge seems to spend money like it’s going out of style). By the end of the book, my impression is that Rog is trying to do the right thing for his family, has some real concern over Kevin, but maybe doesn’t know how to show it. Marge is too self-involved for my taste and doesn’t come across very well (and has some other problems I won’t get into). But when the chips are down, both will selflessly and reflexively react to help their son. Their daughter, Kevin’s younger sister, is practically ignored throughout and I always feel bad for her. We’ll see an echo of this couple (with significant variations) in Promised Land in a couple of months.

The Bartletts live in Smithfield, which a fictionalized version of Lynnfield, MA. There are some pretty good reasons that Parker probably had to change the name in this novel, but as Spenser spends time in almost every novel since in Smithfield, I wonder if he ever regretted it.

Police Chief Trask is this close to being a tough-guy cartoon of a cop. He’s far more concerned with making sure that Spenser knows that he’s running the show than he is in anything Spenser has to say on their initial meeting (and he doesn’t improve much after this). He’s done some checking on Spenser and the two banter a bit about Spenser’s record. Well, Spenser banters and Trask tries to push him around, anyway.

Before Spenser can do too much on his own to find Kevin, a very strange looking ransom note shows up. Which brings the Massachusetts State Police, in the person of Lt. Healy, into things.

Healy I knew of . He was chief investigator for the Essex County DA”s office. There were at least two first-run racketeers I knew who stayed out of Essex County because they didn’t want any truck with him.

Healy said, ‘Didn’t you used to work for the Suffolk County DA once?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Didn’t they fire you for hotdogging?”

“I like to call it inner-directed behavior,” I said.

“I’ll bet you do.” Healy said.

Healy is tough, smart and ethical—and has little respect for Trask. He and Spenser work together pretty well, and Healy will appear or be mentioned in another dozen Spenser novels before making regular appearances in the Jesse Stone books.

From this point, things get strange—the ransom note is just the beginning, and a strange kidnapping will evolve into a murder case, a drugs and prostitution ring, and . . . well, more things. As with The Godwulf Manuscript the climactic fight involves two people who have no business engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Unlike last time, Spenser’s not sidelined for this fight and gets involved as well—it’s one of my favorite fight scenes in the series. Parker shows off his knowledge of and affinity for boxing here. Spenser’s motive for engaging in the fight isn’t necessarily pure, and I kind of like how honest Parker and Spenser both are about that.

As nice as that scene is, that’s not the end of the story—and whatever victory Spenser enjoys, it’s empty. Which is a nod to Spenser’s noir lineage and something that will show up again and again in the series.

While we’re introduced to Spenser in the previous novel, it doesn’t feel quite like a Spenser novel. But God Save the Child does. The same flavor, pacing, and approach to the story that are here are in almost every thing that Parker does with the character from this point forward. The character will evolve from novel to novel, but the series really starts here.

Possibly the biggest reason for that is that it’s in these pages we meet Susan Silverman. She’s the guidance counselor at Smithfield High School and after the Assistant Principal demonstrates that he’s useless for giving Spenser any insight into Kevin, she’s who Spenser turns to. Spenser’s described quite a few women prior to this, but from the first paragraph, Susan’s different.

Susan Silverman wasn’t beautiful. but there was an intangibility about her a physical reality, that made the secretary with the lime-green bosom seem insubstantial. She had should-length black hair and a thin dark Jewish face with prominent cheekbones. Tall, maybe five seven, with black eyes. It was hard to tell her age, but there was a sense about her of intelligent maturity which put her on my side of thirty…When she shook hands with me, I felt something click down the back of my solar plexus.

I said hello without stammering and sat down.

Parker’s not quite as blatant about it as Henry Fielding is about Sophie (for those who’ve been reading my Fridays with the Foundling series), but he’s fairly obvious in the way he portrays Susan in this scene (not to mention the several that follow) that she’s different. Exceptional. She ends up being the love of Spenser’s life and shows up in every book hereafter. But for now, they’re just meeting, but there’s a spark between the two of them and Spenser soon asks her to dinner.

I had just finished washing my hands and face when the doorbell rang. Everything was ready. Ah, Spenser, what a touch. Everything was just right except that I couldn’t seem to find a missing child. Well, nobody’s perfect. I pushed the release button and opened my apartment door. I was wrong. Susan Silverman was perfect.

It took nearly forty years of savior faire to keep from saying “Golly.”…

“Come in,” I said. Very smooth. I didn’t scuff my foot; I didn’t mumble. I stood right up straight when I said it. I don’t think I blushed.

During their date, Susan makes the following observation about Spenser,

So, sticking your nose into things and getting it broken allows you to live life on your own terms, perhaps.

Spenser is impressed with this insight—and it’s a recurring theme for the two of them to talk about for the next few decades—with each other or when Susan tries to explain Spenser to others. The choices he’s made in his life—relational, vocational, lifestyle, what have you—are all about living life on his own terms. There’s a lot to be commended in this approach, and some problems (in two books we meet a more extreme version of someone living this way…but that’s for another day). Another frequent thing that comes up in their conversations appeared for the first time when they met.

“Why do you want to know?” [Susan asks]

“Because it’s there. Because it’s better to know than not to know in my line of work.”

If I had a quarter for every time the two of them said this (sometimes he does the set up), I’d be able to buy my replacement copy of this book.

It’s not just because they say the same things in almost every book (wow, it sounds dull when I put it that way—it’s not, at least not for several years), it’s the effect that Susan has on Spenser that changes the series. It made Spenser stand out from the rest of the genre’s tough guys. I could go on and on about Susan or Susan-and-Spenser, but I’ll hold off on it for now.

As chapter two begins, we’re treated to four long paragraphs (about two pages in my edition) describing the route between Boston and Smithfield, with commentary from Spenser on the scenery, traffic, businesses, etc. that he comes across. This is something that Parker excels at—and doesn’t do nearly often enough (but at least once a book). I’ve never been in that part of the world, I defiantly can’t go to the version of that area that existed in 1974—but I walk away from this description feeling like I know the area.

As far as recurring characters go (other than Healy and Susan), Frank Belson makes a quick appearance, and we meet Henry Cimoli—who runs the Harbor Health Club, Spenser’s gym. Henry’s importance will ebb and flow (as will the frequency of appearances) over the rest of the series, but he’s a constant enough presence that it’s good to meet him for the first time here.

There’s a lot more that could be mined from these pages, but this has gotten too long. I may pick up a strand or two in the future, but we’ll see. God Save the Child seems to be a story about a runaway (or a kidnapping?), but really it’s about a young man struggling to understand his place in the world, parents who aren’t sure how to parent, and a detective starting to change his place in the world. There’s a lot of wit, some good social commentary, some decent detecting, and a great fight scene—all expertly and (seemingly) effortlessly written. That’s a reductionistic way to look at it, but that’s a Spenser novel in a nutshell. I loved revisiting it, and can’t wait to get to the next book.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Classic Spenser: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

Classic Spenser

The Godwulf Manuscript

The Godwulf Manuscript

by Robert B. Parker
Series: Spenser, #1

Mass Market Paperback, 204 pg.
Dell, 1973

Read: January 25-27, 2020

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Driving back to Boston, I thought about my two retainers in the same week. Maybe I’d buy a yacht. On the other hand maybe it would be better to get the tear in my convertible roof fixed. The tape leaked.

I came to this series about thirteen (possibly fourteen) years late, but to be fair, I would have been thirteen (possibly fourteen) when I started reading it. I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate Spenser without having spent some time with Leroy Brown, Jupiter Jones/Peter Crenshaw/Bob Andrews, Tabitha-Ruth Wexler and others (as I’ve invoked Brown, I hope I remember to draw a line between Sally Kimball and Spenser’s version when I discuss Promised Land). The Godwulf Manuscript wasn’t the first novel I read in the series, I’m going to guess I’d read three or four others before I found this in a used book store. I did find, I now know, a copy with the original cover (as seen above). A year or two later, I loaned it to a friend who proceeded to lose it. I got over it (probably because I didn’t care about things like early editions then) and despite losing that copy, that friend later became my first college roommate, and I didn’t kill him in his sleep for it. Not even once.

That excursus down memory lane means nothing to you, but I put it there in case that friend reads this post. I hope he remembers the Klingon proverb, bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’.

I’ll hold off on talking more about my background with this series for now, but the fact I’ve been reading, and re-reading, and re-re-reading, and re-re-re-reading these books since 1986 (possibly 1987) probably gives you a pretty good idea what I think of them. I could probably write lengthy posts on the first twenty novels in this series without reading them again—but where would be the fun in that? Of the twelve Spenser novels I’ll be revisiting this year, this one is in my bottom two and I’ve read it at least fifteen times, and I don’t see me stopping reading it anytime until I start sleeping the big sleep.

Yeah, that was a purposeful Raymond Chandler allusion. Why? Because this whole novel is a giant Chandler allusion*. From naming his main character after a British poet; to Spener’s attitude, demeanor, voice, etc.; to the opening paragraphs; and so, so much more this whole book screams Parker’s debt to and affection for Raymond Chandler. Spenser as a Shadow of Philip Marlowe will ebb and flow over the years, but I don’t think it’s ever more pronounced than it is in these pages.

* Yeah, there are other influences afoot in these pages, I realize. But Chandler is the primary influence, and this isn’t a dissertation. I don’t have the time to be exhaustive, I have at least 9 other posts I want to complete this week and if I don’t cut a corner or two, I won’t be able to get to them.

So what are these two retainers mentioned above? The first comes from an unnamed university that bears a striking resemblance to Northeastern (Parker’s employer when this was released). An illuminated manuscript has been stolen and is being held for ransom. The problem? (or at least one of them) The University doesn’t have the kind of cash the ‘script-nappers want. They do have a suspect, however, a radical political group on campus: SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation). Catchy, eh? Spenser starts looking into the group, focusing on a couple of the leaders.

Within a few hours, one of those leaders is dead and another is the prime suspect for the murder. She’d called Spenser for help right after the murder, and he believes her (for compelling reasons you should read for yourself). This leads to the second retainer, her father—a pretty successful capitalist, it should be noted—hires Spenser to clear her for the murder.

The hunt for the manuscript and the murder will end up involving a cult, a couple of very dysfunctional marriages, drug dealing, a couple of hitmen, and a mob boss. Basically, Spenser has his hands full.

While there are many aspects of this novel that Parker will tweak for future installments, there’s a lot that he establishes here that he’ll revisit. Spenser gets fired because of his attitude (as demonstrated by his ignoring—rightly—the University’s insistence that he leave faculty alone), his being fired doesn’t stop him from sticking with the job, however. There’s a shootout in an unpopulated area near Boston*. Spenser cooks a pretty decent meal for himself (not quite Fritz Brenner’s level, but close enough for a guy cooking for one), and proves himself more literate than anyone looking at him would assume. The climactic fight will be echoed in upcoming books, featuring someone who has no business fighting anyone taking on a hardened criminal of sorts solely on the basis of love and desperation. Parker does get away from this, which is good—if only for the sake of variety—but man, I love it every time he uses this.

* My knowledge of Massachusetts geography comes wholly from the novels of Parker, William Tapply and Dennis Lehane, so I can’t be more specific than “unpopulated”.

Spenser physically roughs up a couple of college kids and verbally pushes around an older man. Each incident is followed by Spenser berating himself. This is the kind of thing that you don’t see a whole lot in the hardboiled world before Spenser’s debut. Parker will do a more subtle job in the future of showing that while Spenser will resort to violence when necessary, he doesn’t relish it (except when he knows the recipient is guilty of something) and regrets the act. But here, it’s pretty clear that Parker’s trying to show that Spenser isn’t unfeeling about acts of aggression.

There are things that show up here that will disappear—Spenser sleeps with two different women and is fairly casual about it. He’ll later become a paragon of monogamy, but that’s a couple of years away. Still, he’s less of a player next time we see him. He’s also a bit more antagonistic to most of the police that he encounters than he’ll be in books to come. Some of that is a shift in Spenser, some of that is a growth in the relationships he develops with individual members of BPD.

The main thing that sticks around in the future are some of the characters—we meet people here that Spenser still knows and interacts with on a regular basis. Spenser flirts a lot with the secretary for the head of Campus Security, and we’ll see her later. A reporter for the Campus newspaper gives Spenser a lot of help and information about various people/groups on campus, her name is Iris Milford and when Ace Atkins brought her back in 2015, I may have let out an audible whoop. We meet Spenser’s lawyer, Vince Haller, who not only helps Spenser, but the college student being framed. Haller will eventually disappear from the stage (I realize as I write this), but he’s a frequent presence for a long time to come.

But the three big recurring characters are Lt. Martin Quirk, Sgt. Frank Belson and Joe Broz. Spenser and Belson (a homicide detective) have some history and clearly respect (and even like) each other. Belson’s smart, appears lazy (appears), perpetually has a cheap cigar in his mouth (I think that’s a characteristic in this novel, if not, it will be next time we see him). Belson’s superior is Lt. Quirk. Quirk is a very no-nonsense cop, he’s driven, almost humorless, and has no use for private investigators, but sees a little value in Spenser and begins to trust him a bit over the course of this novel. Joe Broz, on the other hand, couldn’t be less a homicide detective if he tried—you could argue Broz (and his employees) are responsible for the continued careers for a handful of homicide detectives. He’s a crime boss of some notoriety and viciousness. At this point (and for some time to come), he’s the most powerful mobster in Boston (although we will soon meet competition). Spenser will be a thorn in Broz’s side for a long, long time.

It occurs to me that I haven’t described Spenser himself. He’s a former professional boxer (not that good, but he did get his nose broken by someone who was very good); a Korean War vet; a former Massachusetts State Trooper, assigned to the DA’s office in a County that fluctuates depending on Parker’s memory; and now a Private Investigator. He’s very literate, he likes to cook (as I mentioned), he drinks a lot, thinks he’s funnier than anyone else does (except the readers of the novels)—which brings him a lot of grief. We don’t get a lot of insight into it in this novel, but honor’s very important to him and it will influence the way he deals with clients, victims, criminals and everyone else along the way. He’s very much a latter-day knight.

I’m not sure that the mystery is all that clever, but the strength of this book is riding along with Spenser as he goes around annoying people until someone does something that he can catch them at (a strategy he’ll spell out in the future, but follows here). I love the voice, I enjoy the character, and watching him go about his business is a pure joy for me.

I haven’t discussed the action/fight scenes yet, and Parker’s approach to them (particularly in the first 15-20 of the series) has always greatly appealed to me. Parker has to address violence, given his chosen genre–and Spenser is a violent man. But in months to come, we see the character address that in such a way to give us insight into why Parker uses it the way he does (I think). So I’ll put a pin in this for now (also, this is long-winded enough at this point that I’ll take any excuse to wrap things up).

I, obviously, highly recommend this book—but I’ll be the first to say that the second is much better and the fourth and fifth in this series are better yet. You don’t have to start with this one for future books to make sense—in fact, you might appreciate Spenser more if you start later on. But for my money, you’re not likely to find many characters as compelling in contemporary (or at least late-Twentieth Century) hardboiled fiction. For introducing the character to the world/the world to the character of Spenser, The Godwulf Manuscript is well-worth the time. Even if it wasn’t the start of something big, it’s still entertaining enough for me to encourage you to read it.

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Opening Lines: The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest (plus the 39 novels to follow by Parker (not to mention the 8+ by Ace Atkins)).

from The Godwulf Manuscript by Robert B. Parker:

The office of the university president looked like the front parlor of a successful Victorian whorehouse. It was paneled in big squares of dark walnut, with ornately figured maroon drapes at the long windows. There was maroon carpeting and the furniture was black leather with brass studs. The office was much nicer than the classrooms; maybe I should have worn a tie.

Bradford W. Forbes, the president, was prosperously heavy—reddish face; thick, longish, white hair; heavy white eyebrows. He was wearing a brown pin-striped custom-tailored three-piece suit with a gold Phi Beta Kappa key on a gold watch chain stretched across his successful middle. His shirt was yellow broadcloth and his blue and yellow striped red tie spilled out over the top of his vest.

As he talked, Forbes swiveled his chair around stared at his reflection in the window. Flakes of the season’s first snow flattened out against it and dissolved and trickled down onto the white brick sill. It was very gray out, a November grayness that is peculiar to Boston in late fall, and Forbes’s office seemed cheerier than it should have because of that.

He was telling me about the sensitive nature of a college president’s job, and there was apparently a lot to say about it. I’d been there twenty minutes and my eyes were beginning to cross. I wondered if I should tell him his office looked like a whorehouse. I decided not to.

“Do you see my position, Mr. Spenser,” he said, and swiveled back toward me, leaning forward and putting both his hands palms down on the top of his desk. His nails were manicured.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “We detectives know how to read people.”

Forbes frowned and went on.

“It is a matter of the utmost delicacy, Mr. Spenser”—he was looking at himself in the glass again—”requiring restraint, sensitivity, circumspection, and a high degree of professionalism. I don’t know the kind of people who usually employ you, but…”

I interrupted him.

“Look, Dr. Forbes, I went to college once, I don’t wear my hat indoors. And if a clue comes along and bites me on the ankle, I grab it. I am not, however, an Oxford don. I am a private detective. Is there something you’d like me to detect, or are you just polishing up your elocution for next year’s commencement?”

Forbes inhaled deeply and let the air out slowly through his nose.

“District Attorney Frale told us you were somewhat overfond of your own wit.”

Angel Eyes by Ace Atkins: Spenser’s 47th Novel Finds him in L.A. and Feels as Fresh as Ever

Angel Eyes

Robert B. Parker’s Angel Eyes

by Ace Atkins
Series: Spenser, #7

Hardcover, 305 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

Read: November 20-21, 2019

In the passing light, I noticed the welts on her wrists, chapped and bloody.

She’d been tied up for a long time.

Chollo noticed them, too.

“Should we kill him?” he said.

“Too easy.”

“You will never change, amigo,” he said. When will you learn? Some people live without rules. And sometimes killing a bad man is the only way.”

“I have other ideas for [him].”

Chollo nodded. “And I am listening”

The day that Hawk, Chollo (and a few others) stop trying to convince Spenser to just kill the bad guy and be done with it—or the day that he listens to them—is the day we’ll all know the series has run its course. Which will hopefully be around the time my future grandchildren start reading the series.

But far before we get to that point, we should probably start at the beginning.

A friend of Susan’s is worried about her daughter, who lives in L.A. and has gone missing. She’s beside herself, so Spenser flies out to find her with Zebulon Sixkill’s help. The book opens with Spenser and Z being let into Gabby’s apartment by her ex-boyfriend and still-agent, Eric Collinson. Collinson is typically the kind of twerp that Spenser would enjoy messing with, but he’s on his best behavior (probably to keep Collinson talking).

Collinson keeps insisting there’s nothing to worry about, that Gabby’s probably just off on a quick Mexican vacation or something. Still, he surreptitiously leaves her laptop behind for Spenser to “find.” Between what Z’s tech-wizard friend finds on the laptop, what Z and Spenser get from the LAPD (in the person of our old acquaintance Samuelson) and Gabby friends/former boss, there are two avenues of investigation for them to dive into. A powerful studio executive and a multi-level personal development group that’s somewhere in-between Scientology and NXIVM (far closer to the latter). But before they can dig too far into things, some heavies representing a third party show up and the lead starts flying.

And I ate it all up.

It’s dangerous enough that Z isn’t enough to help Spenser out. Chollo (now a small-businessman), Bobby Horse and Mr. del Rio put in appearances and render assistance in varying amounts.

I could easily keep going along these lines for 6-10 more paragraphs, but I’d better show some restraint and leave things there and move onto other parts of the book.

In addition to the hunt for Gabby, we get a little bit of Spenser’s jaded view of the entertainment industry (largely in the same vein as we saw in A Savage Place and Stardust, just up-to-date); a lot of references to movies and stars that are so irrelevant to contemporary Hollywood that most of the characters don’t get them; and a very jaded (but likely accurate) look at “The Industry” post-#MeToo.

Also, we get a hint or two at what Z’s been up to since he left Boston and Atkins has completely left the possibility open for someone to start a Sixkill series, already populated with a cast of characters to carry a book or two. I’m ready to buy at least 5 of them in hardcover right now.

The last little things that I’ll mention are that we get a nice update on Mattie Sullivan, but we need to see more of her soon. Plus, there’s a cameo that filled my heart with joy here—that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Atkins is in fine form, which comes as no surprise to anyone. I didn’t spend too much time comparing him to Parker as I read it, but you can’t help but do it. It’s a fast, breezy style, but there are depths to be plumbed (unlike several of Parker’s latter Spensers). It’s just a pleasure to bask in the language, dialogue, and characters.

At this point, when it comes to an Atkins Spenser novel, it’s really just a question of how much I’m going to like it, it’d be impossible (I wager) for him to deliver something that I won’t like. I liked this one plenty. A fine story, a setting the character hasn’t been in for a while, a chance to catch up with old friends . . . Angel Eyes is as satisfying as you could ask for. Could you start with it? Sure. You wouldn’t get all of the references, but none of them would impact your appreciation of the story. The only danger in starting with Angel Eyes is that you’d probably feel compelled to go back and read the previous 46. Which actually sounds like a lot of fun to me.

I hemmed and hawed over the stars on this one. If I had a 4 1/4 graphic, I probably would’ve employed it. My initial impulse was 4 Stars, but when I stop and think about: there was one page where I laughed out loud (at least a chuckle) multiple times (I really want to talk about it in detail, but don’t want to ruin anything); the way Atkins pulled in every L.A. reference possible (plus some other Spenser-canon references) without making it feel like checking off a list; and the feeling of dread and worry Atkins was able to elicit (which really doesn’t happen all that often in long-running series)…I’ve gotta give it that extra bump (and now that I’ve actually written that list, I’m thinking of bumping it up another).


4 1/2 Stars

2019 Cloak & Dagger Challenge

No . . . just . . . No (or Initial Thoughts on Netflix’s announced adaptation of Atkin’s Wonderland)

According to Variety and Deadline stories today, another actor has been tapped to take on the role of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser: Mark Whalberg. He’ll be starring in Peter Berg’s movie for Netflix, an adaptation of Wonderland — the second novel Ace Atkins wrote about the Boston sleuth — as the potential first in a series.

I’m not Whalberg’s biggest fan, but given the right material, he’s good and he can pull of the physicality needed (and then some, but, whatever). And I have more trust in Peter Berg than most directors (Battleship notwithstanding). And the source material is great.

BUT. . .

From Deadline‘s story:

The movie will differ from the novel, in that it begins with Spenser emerging from a prison stretch, stripped of his private investigator license. Here, he gets pulled back into the underbelly of the Boston crime world when he uncovers the truth about a sensational murder and the twisted conspiracy behind it.

Stripped of his PI license after a prison stretch???? I know that adaptations have to make changes to the character, that’s the whole point of adapting. But this is striking at the core of the character. Spenser a felon? That’s a deal breaker. That makes almost all the changes in The Dresden Files series seem acceptable. It’s like making Edward a werewolf and Jacob a vampire. Or using an animated tiger in Life of Pi à la Bedknobs and Broomsticks. I’m having trouble here, okay? You can get the gist of what I’m saying.

So, I’m happy for the Parker Estate, Ace Atkins and anyone else who made some money off this. I’m happier yet for anyone who discovers Parker/Atkins/Spenser because of this.

But…nope. Just flat-out no. Count me out.*

*(which everyone knows is a giant lie, I’m totally going to watch this because I’m weak, I’m a sucker, and a Spenser-addict)

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

Pub Day Repost: Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies by Ace Atkins

Really, all I want to say about this book is: “Yes! Atkins did it again — it’s just so good, folks. Long-time fans’ll love it, new readers will likely see the appeal of the series. A lot of fun with a great ending!” But that seems a little surface-y and is just bad writing. But really, that’s everything I’ve got to say.

Little White LiesRobert B. Parker’s Little White Lies

by Ace Atkins
Series: Spenser, #45eARC, 320 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2017
Read: March 16 – 17, 2017

Pearl and I were off to Central Square . Her long brown ears blew in the wind as we drove along Memorial Drive against the Charles. Rowers rowed, joggers jogged, and bench sitters sat. It was midSeptember and air had turned crisp. The leaves had already started to turn red and gold, shining in Technicolor upon the still water.

I debated about what quotation I’d open with — I went with this Parker-esque (and Atkins-esque) description. Little White Lies is one of the better of Atkins run on this series, because (like here) he did something that feels like something Parker would’ve written, but not quite what he’d have said (the more I think about it, the less I think that Parker’d have said “bench sitters sat”).

Actually, that’s true of the other quotation I almost used, too:

I nodded , adding water to the new coffeemaker sitting atop my file cabinet. I’d recently upgraded from Mr. Coffee to one of those machines that used pre-measured plastic cups. I placed my mug under the filter, clamped down the lid, and returned to my desk. Demonic hissing sounds echoed in my office. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?

This is Atkins sixth Spenser novel, and you’d think he’s got enough of a track record that I could stop comparing him to Parker. Well, you’d be wrong — I can’t stop. This, like most of Atkins’ work on this series, is so reminiscent of early Parker novels that it makes some of the latter Parkers look more like they were written by a hired gun. Still, I’m going to try to keep it to a minimum because it doesn’t seem fair to keep doing.

Susan has sent one of her clients to Spenser for some help that she can’t provide. Connie Kelly had been dating someone she met online, invested in one of his real estate deals — and he vanished, taking the money with him. Could Spenser track him down and get her cash back? Sure, he says. It doesn’t take long for the investigation to show that he owes plenty of people money — a couple of months rent here, hundreds of thousands of dollar there.

Here’s the fun part: M. Brooks Welles, the deadbeat in question, is a silver-haired, silver-tongued mainstay on cable news. He’s former CIA, and an expert on military and national security issues — one of those that producers call on regularly when they need a talking head. Why’s a guy like that flaking out on real estate deals? Spenser knows something fishier than expected is going on — which takes him into a world of mercenaries, gun deals, and the ATF.

Then someone tries to kill him. A couple of times. And the book stops feeling like a semi-light adventure, poking fun at the blowhards on cable TV and the state of American Journalism, and how we shouldn’t trust as many people who have cameras pointed at them as we do. Things take on a different tone, bodies start piling up, and a darkness slips in to the book. This also brings in Belson and his new boss — who’s still not a fan of Spenser. About the same time, Connie starts to waver in her conviction that she wants her money back and Welles punished. Spenser, naturally, doesn’t care and plows ahead. Hawk is able to connect Spenser with some mercenaries that travel in the same circles as Welles and the chase is on. Eventually, the action moves from Boston and its environs to Georgia. Which means that Teddy Sapp is going to make an appearance.

All the characters were great — I would’ve liked some more time with some of Welles’ co-conspirators in Boston, I think it’d have helped round out our picture of his crimes. But it’s a minor complaint. We also got plenty of interaction with his Georgia-based colleagues. Even the characters that show up for a page or two as witnesses to the crimes were interesting — it’s the little things like those that add so much. It was nice to see Teddy Sapp again, too. He was the best part of Hugger Mugger (faint praise, I realize). The Hawk material was very good — maybe Atkins’ best use of the character yet.

I fully expect that people are going to spend a lot of time talking about the ending — it didn’t feel like a Parker ending. That said, it felt like an ending that pre-A Catskill Eagle Parker might have tried. It was satisfying, don’t misunderstand, it’s just not the kind of ending that Parker employed. Honestly, there were two other perfectly acceptable places to end the book — and if not for the progress bar at the bottom of my screen, I might have believed that thee ending was earlier and equally strong.

Now, because Atkins and the Parker estate aren’t stupid, there are certain characters that you just know are safe, no matter what shenanigans that they’ve let Atkins and Coleman get away with when it comes to killing off long-term supporting characters. But there was a definite feeling of peril when it comes to [name redacted] and [name redacted]. Sure I knew they’d live to be read about another day, but I wondered how healthy they’d be in the meantime.

This is sharply written, as usual. Atkins knows what he’s doing (in this series or anything else) — a great mix of character moments and plot. Spenser’s voice is strong — as are the voices of the other regulars. It was just a pleasure to read through and through. Let me leave you with one more snippet that is could’ve come from an early-80’s Spenser just as easily today’s, a voice like this is enough reason to read the book — the rest is just gravy (and there’s plenty of gravy):

I returned with sore legs back to my seat on the steps. I spent the next fifteen minutes watching women of all ages, sizes, and colors walk past me. I liked the way most women walked. I liked the way they dressed. And talked and smelled. I was pretty damn sure I was a fan of women in general. Did this make me a sexist or a feminist? Or somewhere in between.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Putnam Books via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.

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4 1/2 Stars