Nobody writes the way the late Robert B. Parker did. But Ace Atkins comes close with Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby (G.P. Punam’s Sons, $26.95).
Atkins was brave even to try. He’s a fine writer with a good ear and a slew of stand-alone best-sellers. And now, with his Quinn Colson books, he’s in the midst of his second successful and entertaining series featuring his own characters.
So it’s not like he needed the work. Or the fallout from Parker’s legion of fans had he failed, as Michael Brandman did in trying to resuscitate Parker’s other main leading man, small-town police chief Jesse Stone, in last year’s Killing the Blues.
Where Brandman fell short, Atkins succeeds. He doesn’t sound like somebody trying to emulate Parker. He sounds like Parker in a book that hits all the usual Spenser notes.
He has the wisecrack-filled dialogue down and Parker’s cadences, too: Spenser, thankfully, sounds like Spenser.
You also get the vivid sense of place, flexing of muscles and spare plot that were hallmarks of Parker’s 39 Spenser books, which ended with 2011’s Sixkill a year after the author’s death at 77.
The book opens, as usual, with a case walking in off the street. Mattie Sullivan, a feisty, street-smart 14-year-old who reminds Spenser of himself, wants him to prove that the guy in jail for killing her mother didn’t do it and to prove who did.
Her mother was a prostitute and addict, and Mattie, at 10, was left to take care of her young twin sisters in the projects while her grandma gets drunk most nights.
Spenser takes the case — for a box of doughnuts instead of his usual pay.
He is, as always, the tough guy with a heart — as well as an appreciation for the classics, from the Boston Braves ballcap he wears to the .38 Chief’s Special he carries to the Harry James Orchestra he favors.
Spenser’s true love, psychologist Susan Silverman, points out the similarities, and differences, between what he’s doing for Mattie and what he did for another kid, Paul Giacomin, many books ago.
It’s one of many nods Atkins gives to characters from Spenser’s past. Some make an appearance on the periphery here, such as Boston homicide Capt. Martin Quirk and Lt. Frank Belson, attorney Rita Fiore and mobsters Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus and Gerry Broz. Others get no more than a name-check — mob boss Gino Fish, onetime love interest Brenda Loring and Zebulon Sixkill, introduced in Parker’s final Spenser book but unavailable this time, leaving Spenser to get by with his always reliable (and equally well-read) thug friend Hawk.
It’s Atkins’ only misstep — too self-consciously invoking the Spenser past.
The only new ground he breaks is to fill in a little of Hawk’s past, revealed when Hawk talks with Mattie about losing his own mother.
Still, it’s a feat when a writer creates characters who live and breathe on the page and make readers care and keep coming back for more. To manage that with someone else’s characters, let alone with an icon like Spenser, is a minor miracle. Ace Atkins pulls it off.
ROBERT B. PARKER’S LULLABY by Ace Atkins, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, $26.95