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Spenser Hits 50

Ace Atkins keeps the action going in Robert B. Parker’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Robert B. Parker’s Spenser is the Energizer Bunny of detective fiction: Not only does he keep going and going and going, he keeps besting bad guys and cracking wise. Since the Boston sleuth first appeared in The Godwulf Manuscript, published January 1, 1974, he has charmed and punched his way through 50 books and counting. After Parker’s death in 2010, Mississippi-based writer Ace Atkins took over the series, channeling Parker’s knack for witty dialogue, fast pacing, and a memorable ensemble of characters.

Photo: Joe Worthem

In his ninth Spenser book, officially titled Robert B. Parker’s Someone to Watch Over Me, Atkins sends the detective through his familiar Boston haunts as he helps his gumshoe protégé Mattie Sullivan bring a rich and powerful sexual predator to justice, along the way identifying several underage victims and persuading them to come forward. The trail eventually leads the pair to Miami, the Bahamas, and an encounter with Spenser’s mysterious nemesis, the Gray Man.

While Atkins delights in resurrecting characters and occasionally updating side plots from Parker’s original books, it is his spot-on knack for tone that wins over Spenser fans and has drawn new readers to the tough guy with an unwavering moral code. From the beginning, Spenser hearkened to the original hard-boiled detectives, first introduced in the 1920s: Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe (notably so in the previous Atkins book, set in LA).

But Spenser offers readers more than repartee and the head-butting of goons (as needed): He is a reliable guide to Boston history, architecture, and dining. Readers may be inspired to try Spenser’s recipe for perico eggs or to look up the Boston locations of Kane’s Donuts. Every few pages, his snappy dialogue alludes to great literature, art, music, or film. In Someone to Watch Over Me, Spenser manages to quote T.S. Eliot, William Shakespeare, and Fiona Apple, among others.

The fun for readers is that these allusions, seldom identified, fly by quickly, becoming Easter eggs for those who catch them. Spenser and Mattie travel to Florida, for example, to research Peter Steiner (a secretive financier who seems to share many traits with the late Jeffrey Epstein). They learn of a former landscaper at Steiner’s Boca Raton compound who once sued him for nonpayment and might therefore talk. At the landscaper’s rural headquarters, they find “a wiry little man in shorts and no shirt” smoking a cigarette as he sharpens a lawnmower blade. Spenser thinks he hears Pérez Prado on the radio, although it turns out later to be Beny Moré.

“His skin was dark and leathery,” Atkins writes. “He had a full head of black hair flecked with gray. His muscles knotted and corded, like an old fisherman’s. He looked like the kind of guy who might have had his prized marlin eaten by sharks.” And the reader who paid attention in 9th grade lit class smiles.

Atkins masters not only the style, but the structure of the series as created by Parker. The book’s 300-plus pages comprise 60 spare chapters, each moving the story forward with action, dialogue, and description. It’s easy to go through several per sitting, like a handful of mints. While Spenser travels widely, the center of his orbit remains a fully fleshed Boston — surprising from a Southern writer who also produces a new book every year in his own Mississippi-based suspense series featuring sheriff Quinn Colson.

“I must write one at a time with very little overlap,” Atkins said of the two series in a 2015 interview with Chapter 16. “I can speak both languages — deep South and deep Boston — but I can’t do both simultaneously.”

Keeping a tough, attractive detective on the trail of bad guys for half a century while somehow remaining tough and attractive requires a deft handling of time. The Spenser of the Atkins books is older, but not that much older, as are his sidekick Hawk and his romantic partner Susan — both of whom continue to evolve as well-developed characters in the 2020s. While Atkins seems to play around with aging in people years, there’s no escaping the passage of doggy years, and thus in this book Spenser’s exuberant Pearl is introduced as a new puppy, the third canine to bear the name.

There is a silver lining to the same detective providing humor, action, and most of all escape for five decades and counting: Even though every restaurant and bar in the book is listed on Yelp, Spenser’s world is not quite ours. While Someone to Watch Over Me was likely completed in 2020, it bears no hint of either global pandemic or presidential election. That hardly matters. In staying true to Spenser’s action and wit, not to mention the satisfying triumph of good over evil, Ace Atkins provides escapist reading in its purest form. Lord knows, we could use some escape.

Spenser Hits 50

Michael Ray Taylor is the author of Hidden Nature: Wild Southern Caves. He chairs the communication and theatre arts department at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.