When Robert B. Parker died last year, I assumed that meant the end of one of my favorite mystery series, starring Parker’s Boston private eye Spenser.
But Parker’s estate and publisher announced last week that mystery writer Ace Atkins will write a new Spenser novel. Another Parker series, featuring small-town police chief Jesse Stone, will be continued by Michael Brandman, a screenwriter who worked with Parker.
My initial reaction upon reading this was not positive. For the dangers of authors carrying on other authors’ work, you don’t have to look very far. You don’t even have to look beyond Robert B. Parker.
Parker had a deep respect for Raymond Chandler, creator of the iconic private eye Philip Marlowe. The two detectives, Marlowe and Spenser, shared some traits; some even called Spenser an updated Marlowe for the late 20th century.
So Parker seemed a natural choice to complete “Poodle Springs,” a Marlowe novel that Chandler wrote four chapters of before he died. Parker then wrote “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to Marlowe’s “The Big Sleep.”
Those books are not good. They’re OK; Parker could always tell a story. But he’s not Chandler, and Spenser is not Marlowe. Except in these two books written by Parker, he kind of is.
This is part of what novelist Martin Amis wrote about “Perchance to Dream” in The New York Times:
Most seriously, the character of Marlowe collapses. Raymond Chandler created a figure who hovered somewhere between cult and myth: he is both hot and cool, both virile and sterile. He pays a price for his freedom from venality; he is untouchable in all senses; he cannot be corrupted, not by women, not by money, not by America. …
[Parker’s Marlowe] has no turbulent soul, no inner complication to keep in check. Mr. Parker neither understands nor respects Marlowe’s inhibitions; he fritters them away, unconsciously questing for some contemporary ideal of gruff likability. By the end of the book, Marlowe has become an affable goon.
I don’t have anything against Ace Atkins. I’ve read and enjoyed one of his books, “White Shadow,” a noir mystery set in Tampa, Fla., in 1955 and based on real events. He’s clearly a Spenser fan. It wasn’t his idea to continue the series, and maybe he’ll do a fine job.
But I’m afraid that Atkins’ detective won’t be Parker’s detective — which means he won’t be Spenser. And that would be a shame.