Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Wonder of Wonders

Robert B. Parker, one of my favorite authors, passed away in January of 2010 at the age of 77. Since then several other writers have stepped in to continue his various series characters. Up until now I have avoided reading any of the new books. A lot of this stems from the fact that I started reading Parker's Spenser novels when I was 18 and frankly I just couldn't imagine anyone else writing Spenser, even when the guy they picked, Ace Atkins, was a crime writer whose own books I'd read and liked.
   In his book, ON WRITING, Stephen King says that writing is a form of telepathy. Thoughts from one persons head into another person's head through the medium of the printed word. I think that's true, and I think that if you read enough of someone's work you begin to 'feel' their personality a bit. That's how I felt about Parker anyway. When the first new Spenser book came out by Atkins, I read the first couple of chapters on Amazon and Spenser's 'voice' just felt wrong in my head. So I figured, "Well, that's that."
   Later I read an essay about Spenser by Ace Atkins in a book called IN  PURSUIT OF SPENSER and I found that Atkins was just as big a fan of Robert B. Parker as me, which made me feel better about him as the choice to continue the series. Also, a few friends and writers whose opinions I respect had read Atkins' books and said they were well done. Still. I stayed away from the new Spensers.
   Then, just yesterday in fact, I was browsing through the bookstore and spotted the paperback of Atkins' second Spenser novel, WONDERLAND, and I thought, what the hey, lets read the first chapter. Started off with Spenser's long time friend, Henry Cimoli, owner of the Harbor Health Club, asking Spenser for a favor. He and Spenser bantered  bit and I found myself smiling. Don't get me wrong, I still couldn't feel Parker in my head. But if it didn't feel like Parker, it DID feel a little like Spenser.
   So I bought the paperback and took it to lunch with me and continued to read. The further I went, the more I began to enjoy it. The first thing I noticed was that Atkins was wisely not trying to imitate Parker's style. Most of what I would call Spenser's catch phrases weren't there. Spenser was still a wise-ass, but the quips seemed to be more from Atkins than an attempt to mimic Parker. The ATTITUDE was Spenser, but filtered through another writer's perceptions. The best example I can give is when an actor takes over a role from another actor. If he's smart the new guy takes a few things from the previous actor, but makes the character his own.
   The other thing I noticed was that Atkins was writing a denser book than the more recent Spenser novels. After close to forty years of writing Spenser, Parker had stripped his writing down to a sort of prose haiku, made mostly of dialog. The early Spensers had more description. More exposition. More words. Ace Atkins writes that kind of book. It's not better or worse. It's just a different approach. Overall, as one of the cover blurbs noted, this is a good crime novel, pastiche or not.
   Anyway, as the book went on Spenser did the things he does, shooting and punching and cracking wise. He's assisted in this case by Zebulon Sixkill, the Native American character introduced in one of the last Spenser novels by Parker. Spenser's usual sidekick, Hawk, is no where to be seen. In some ways I think that helped me get into the book too, because Hawk is another character I feel like I know well. Parker hadn't had time to flesh out Sixkill, and that gives Atkins a chance to make that character his own.
   So the final verdict is, I liked the book. Ace Atkins is a very good writer and I think he approaches Spenser with the right amount of respect for his creator, but he isn't afraid to write his own book. I didn't want the Rich Little version of Spenser. Ace Atkins is his own man. His Spenser isn't Parker's, but it ain't bad.


Paul R. McNamee said...

Being around Boston, I should read more Parker and more Spenser.

I did consume at least one audiobook.

Which reminded me that it was read by Joe Mantegna, who played Spenser in some later t.v. movies.

I suppose your author voice change being equivalent to actors who share a role can apply to Spenser himself (between Mantegna and Robert Urich.)

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Yep, like that. Or different James Bond actors.