When the news broke last year that Putnam had tapped mystery writer Ace Atkins to pen a new Spenser novel, I sat dumbfounded for a full minute.
At first, it struck me as a purely bad idea, a cheap scheme by a publisher to keep a lucrative franchise going. I mean, how can you have a Spenser book without Robert B. Parker? When the author shuffled off this mortal coil I just naturally assumed that Spenser (as well as Parker’s other series stalwart Jesse Stone) had closed for business. After all, books aren’t like movies or songs. You can’t just bring in a new actor or singer to put a different spin on the same material. A novel is the work of a novelist, and if you want Spenser, well, Parker wrote thirty-nine Spenser novels. The canon is set. As no less an authority than Otto Penzler told The Wall Street Journal, “Ace Atkins is a terrific writer, but he’s no Robert B. Parker.” Parker was a master, in short, and Spenser was his masterpiece. There’s a lot to be said for the theory that you should leave masterpieces well enough alone.
The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that there is another way to look at this announcement. Before Atkins’s debut Spenser novel, Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby, hits shelves in May, let’s bear in mind certain things:
- Big Bob probably would have wanted it this way. As anyone who has ever read an interview with Robert B. Parker knows, there is no reason to think that he was the least bit precious about his work. This guy wrote ten pages a day like he was punching a time clock, claimed never to revise, released three novels a year, and sold about 40 million books. He was, in other words, a cheerful professional. I’d lay money that he would have liked the idea that Spenser will keep on keepin’ on.
- Joan said yes. Parker’s beloved wife and constant muse, Joan (to whom he dedicated nearly all his sixty-plus novels), has blessed the decision to move ahead with new books. She’s also signed off on the selection of Atkins for the Spenser series, as well as the selection of writer Michael Brandman to continue the Jesse Stone series. To know anything about Robert B. Parker is to know that what was fine by Joan was, by definition, fine by him. Joan’s endorsement alone doesn’t make the Atkins/Brandman gamble a good idea, of course, but it is a positive sign.
- Consider the Stone movies. If Michael Brandman’s name is familiar it might be because he’s been writing and producing the Jesse Stone television movies for six years now. Some of those films—like Thin Ice and No Remorse—were original stories written by Brandman. (Parker had no hand in writing them.) Now, if Brandman can write Jesse Stone movies, why can’t he write Jesse Stone novels? It seems like an arbitrary rule to say he can’t, or shouldn’t.
- This kind of thing has been done before. Parker himself wrote two Philip Marlowe novels. John Gardner took a run at James Bond. Eric Van Lustbader picked up Jason Bourne. Joe Gores gave us a new Sam Spade novel. And Sherlock Holmes has been tackled by everyone from Stephen King and Caleb Carr to Loren D. Estleman and Michael Chabon.
On that last point, Holmes serves as a good illustration of a larger issue. When done well, a series character tends to take on a life of his (or her) own. No one writes Holmes as well as Doyle, but since we keep lapping up new variations on the old boy, Holmes himself must have qualities that extend beyond the excellence of Doyle’s writing. I’m sensitive to the argument that no one could ever write Spenser as well as Parker (I’m utterly convinced of it, in fact), but I must say I am intrigued by the idea that Parker might have created a character who could conceivably become as archetypal as Holmes, Spade, and Marlowe.
Will it work? Who knows? You have to keep in mind the nature of Parker’s achievement with Spenser. Unlike Walter Mosley’s continuing development of Easy Rawlins, Parker did not see fit to evolve his hero beyond a certain point. You don’t turn to Spenser for originality. You turn to him for familiarity. Forget the new stuff, play your hits! This is why Spenser stopped aging sometime in the 1980s (and why he stopped talking about serving in Korea). Parker wanted the character to be the perpetual embodiment of a certain kind of emotionally aware masculinity: self-possessed and autonomous, but also selfless and capable of intimacy. These qualities found their expression in a formula as dependable as a three-minute pop song. Spenser in his office smart-mouthing a new client. Spenser and Susan Silverman flirting over dinner. Hawk showing up about halfway through, his bald head gleaming and his face coolly bemused. Spenser hilariously insulting some would-be tough guy. Spenser handing that guy his ass when the doofus can’t take a hint. And, most of all, Spenser sticking to his code of ethics even as he navigates the nasty end of the Boston underworld. You read Spenser to watch him keep being Spenser: the perfect man in an imperfect world.
But can Spenser keep being Spenser without Parker?
That remains to be seen. Parker was, after all, a singularly entertaining and witty writer. When we lost him last year, we lost one of the gentle giants of popular fiction. No one can replace him. But for now Putnam is gambling that Spenser might become something larger than a character in thirty-nine novels by Robert B. Parker. If that is true—if Spenser can continue beyond the prose and plots of the original books—then maybe it only deepens Parker’s achievement.