Review: Ace Atkins gets it right as he reprises Spenser in 'Robert B. Parker's Lullaby'

In reprising the beloved Boston PI in Robert B. Parker's Lullaby, Ace Atkins gets it right.

When Robert B. Parker died in 2010, he left millions of fans mourning that there would be no more books about his best-loved series character, Spenser.

Parker wrote 39 novels about the wisecracking, tough-but-tenderhearted Boston private investigator as well as several dozen other mysteries, Westerns and other books. The publication of a new Spenser was as sure a sign of spring as the first robin (or, in Florida, the last snowbird).

In April 2011 Parker's publisher, Putnam, and his family announced that Spenser would be back: Crime fiction writer Ace Atkins had been tapped to continue the series.

Atkins' Robert B. Parker's Lullaby was published Tuesday, and I'm happy to report that from the coffee and donuts and wronged survivor in the first scene to the coda with Spenser and his sidekick, Hawk, trading insults at the gym, it's the real deal. Parker dedicated all the Spenser novels to his wife and muse, Joan, and Atkins even tends to that detail in Lullaby, dedicated "To Joan. Always the inspiration."

Most importantly, Atkins captures Parker's distinctive voice, the sardonic, self-deprecating, sharply observant first-person narration that makes the Spenser books so compelling, and so much fun.

It's a voice Atkins knows well. In an interview last year, he told me that Parker was "my literary idol. I go back now and read my early books, and I can see how much I stole from him." When Putnam offered to send him copies of Parker's novels to read before he wrote his "audition," he told them not to bother — he had them all.

Atkins, 41, was a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times) and the Tampa Tribune before he began publishing novels. He got his start as a fiction writer with a crime series, four New Orleans-based novels about musicologist Nick Travers, followed by four stand-alone historical crime novels, including White Shadow, the best novel set in Tampa I've read.

He had just decided to start a new series, about former Army Ranger Quint Colson returning to his home in rural Mississippi (Atkins lives near Oxford, Miss.), when the Spenser gig came along. The first Colson book, The Ranger, was a finalist for the 2011 best novel Edgar Award.

The plan is for him to write one book in each series per year, with Spenser appearing in the spring and Colson in the summer. The second Colson, The Lost Ones, will be published May 31. (Atkins will have book signings in Tampa and St. Petersburg on June 14.)

In Lullaby, Atkins hews closely to the pattern Parker developed for the Spenser books, including the vividly rendered Boston setting. Spenser's client is a 14-year-old girl in a pink Red Sox cap. Mattie Sullivan is a tough-as-nails native of the Mary Ellen McCormack projects in South Boston, a girl whose addict mother was raped and murdered four years before. A loser named Mickey Green is doing life in prison for the crime, but Mattie is sure he didn't do it — and sure she knows who did.

Spenser agrees to take the case. Maybe it's Mattie's take-charge attitude (she's raising her younger twin sisters with next to no help from her barfly grandmother); maybe it's because she reminds him of Paul Giacomin, the troubled young man he took in and raised a couple of decades ago. Maybe it's because they strike a deal for Mattie to pay him in donuts.

The case will lead Spenser and Mattie, who insists on going where she shouldn't, into some of Boston's least attractive corners. All the usual supporting characters appear: Spenser's sexy and sensible psychiatrist girlfriend, Susan Silverman; beleaguered cops Quirk and Belson; even Pearl the Wonder Dog. And, of course, there's Hawk, tall, dark, handsome and deadly as always.

Lullaby has the same kind of brief chapters and swift plot that carry all the Spenser novels along at a page-turning pace.

And best of all, it has Spenser. One of the many people he ticks off in Lullaby is a belligerent FBI agent:

" 'You're a funny guy, Spenser,' Connor said. 'Amazing you've lived this long.'

" 'I'm a people person,' I said. 'Meeting guys like you makes it all worth while.' "

Lucky for us, he's not done yet.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.