Mystery novelist Robert B. Parker died just three years ago. Since that time, not have all the books Parker was working on when he had that fatal heart attack been published, but a half dozen other books have been released by writers working in the Parker style, continuing the escapades of his key characters.
Foremost among these characters is the Boston-based private eye Spenser. Ace Atkins is credited with Lullaby (2012) and Wonderland (2013), while Helen Brann is co-bylined with Parker on the just-released “Spenser holiday novel” Silent Night (Putnam 2013, 240 pages, $24.95).
Although there are many bestselling authors, deceased or still with us, who’ve handed over the writing of their books to others, for readers the transition can be awkward. Sometimes styles or interests clash, such as with the more Irish Mafiosi of Mark Winegardner’s Godfather sequels or the pirate adventures Junius Podrug has been passing off as Harold Robbins novels. Sometimes standards get relaxed, as with the numerous V.C. Andrews spin-offs. Sometimes reverence can be a problem, as with some of the James Bond continuations.
The new Spenser books, though, are actually pretty good. They respect that Robert B. Parker wanted these to be presented mostly in rapid-fire dialogue form, and they’re scrupulous in their use of local color, making sure the depictions of Southie, Fenway, Copley and elsewhere ring true.
But if you still have trouble easing from pure Robert B. Parker to these literary Robert B. Parker tribute bands, there’s a easy solution: The audiobooks. The voice of Spenser is still Joe Mantegna.
Why an Italian-American actor from Chicago could have been chosen in the first place to narrate the adventures of a Wyoming-born Boston P.I. (let alone play him in three TV movies back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s) is as real a mystery as any of the ones Spenser solves. Yet it has turned out to be inspired casting. Mantegna reads with a breeziness which matches the Parkerian pacing. When he does other characters’ voices, from Spenser’s friend Hawk to various damsels in distress, he does them with over-the-top screw-nuance stereotypes, which keeps with the old-school noir simplicity of the stories. Most of all, Mantegna is matter-of-fact, devil-may-care funny. He reads the Spenser books as if he’s doing stand-up comedy, making sure every snappy comeback or sarcastic description is savored. You can hear him arch his eyebrow.
Mantegna’s readings add a whole new layer to the Spenser books, and are the main reason why you’d spend five or six hours listening to a book which you could probably read in hardcover in an hour or two. Mantegna’s the real test for the new Parker scribes. If he can apply his direct, upbeat, snarky and chirpy vocal mannerisms to their prose without getting bogged down in multisyllabic words or too much information, they’ve succeeded. Ace Atkins, a crime journalist turned novelist whose own works include White Shadow, Wicked City and the Quinn Colson and Nick Travers mystery series, is a natural fit; his renditions of the class barriers and social customs of South Boston in Lullaby are as sharp as Parker’s. Helen Brann, who was Parker’s literary agent, was working from a manuscript which Parker left unfinished at his death, doesn’t seem to have designs on writing more Spenser books. Silent Night is literally short and sweet, as if she did just what was needed to make the story clear and didn’t want to add too many of her own words to the mix.
In both Atkins’ and Brann’s cases, Joe Mantegna is not impeded in how he has peppily portrayed Spenser for over a decade. It can’t be easy creating such sparkling, witty, snappy dialogue singlehandedly. But Atkins and Brann and Parker have written it, and Mantegna delivers it.
Robert B. Parker is dead. Long live Spenser.