Resurrecting a Hero: Spenser Lives

Two or three years ago, there was a spate of discussion on this blog about fictional heroes who, for one reason or another, were given the chance to outlive their creators. Commenters and I talked about recent resurrections of this famous sleuth or that. I recall Poirot, Archie McNally, Philip Marlowe, as well as Chee and Leaphorn. Here’s the first post, with various comments. Here’s the second. Later on I wrote about Anne Hillerman’s take on her father’s stories. Of course, our discussions were with regard to Maynard MacDonald’s lack of interest in allowing anyone—even Steven King—to revive his father’s great fictional hero.

The reason I bring the subject up again is that I finally got around to reading the first of the new Spenser books by Ace Atkins. I know I’m pretty late to the game on this, and you’re all probably way ahead of me. But after Robert Parker died in 2010, I simply finished reading the last few Spensers that he wrote and figured that was that. I just sort of automatically assumed the new guy—handpicked by the Parker estate—wouldn’t quite nail it. Because, let’s face it, some authors-for-hire who tackle famous sleuths don’t get it right. It’s not easy, recreating those very special voices.

Ace Atkins’ first Spenser, Lullaby, crossed my path a few weeks ago purely by accident. I was out on a walk and, as is my wont, checked out a Little Library in the middle of our community garden. And there the book sat, ripe for the taking.

13269092The story has a bit of True Grit and Leon: The Professional to it, as Spenser is hired by a teenage girl of South Boston to track down who really murdered her mother several years before. The guy in the slammer, she insists, didn’t do it. Spenser takes the case and is soon up to his ears in a complicated criminal conspiracy that seems to involve the son of his old gangster nemesis, Joe Broz. Of course, Hawk is at Spenser’s side. And the very feisty girl complicates things by insisting on being in on the action.

(Considering that Spenser served in the Korean War, he’s in awfully good shape to be doing the tough-guy shtick c. 2012. He’d be about eighty. But despite Parker’s error in tagging him with that history—a lesson to series writers—we’re happy to look the other way because we love Spenser. I guess if Bart Simpson never ages, why should Spenser?)

As a good friend of mine might put it—when he gives his imprimatur to something he particularly approves of—this tale’s “as slick as snot on a doorknob.” Atkins has done as nearly a perfect continuation of a creator’s voice and style as I’ve ever seen. If I’d read Lullaby, say, ten years ago, I wouldn’t have had any reason to question that Robert Parker wrote it. And because of Atkins’ masterful writing chops, Spenser remains alive and kicking, and in hearty good health. Spenser is all here, full of his trademark wiseass-ery. And that is a wonderful thing: Robert Parker may have died, but Spenser lives.

I should note, though, that while the book collects predominantly five and four star reviews on Amazon—I gave it five—down in the scarcer two and one star reviews, many folks think Ace Atkins missed the boat and/or screwed the pooch.

lat_aceatkins050816_17160570_8colAce Atkins

Maynard MacDonald may own Travis McGee and all his father’s other literary properties. He clearly has some deeply held belief that McGee should never again be heard from, absent his dad. And he has every right to prohibit new McGee stories from being developed.

But the Parker estate and Ace Atkins make an awfully good case for at least attempting to resurrect Mr. McGee. You might reasonably argue that the prose that constitutes McGee is of a richer and more thoughtful weave than that which makes up Spenser. And you would have a good point there. Still, why not give it a shot?

As I wrote here a few years ago, the JDM estate could secretly audition a group of strong candidates and see how close they can get to the original’s quality. If no one’s good enough, well there you go. But if someone pulls it off, then why not pick a new color, haul the Busted Flush out of drydock, and set ol’ Trav loose on some new malefactor?

But even if Maynard MacDonald sticks to his guns and remains unpersuaded, there can always be hope that some day JDM’s grandchildren might feel differently.