Every summer since 1981 I’ve read a Spenser mystery by Robert B. Parker. 39 in all, plus all 9 of his Jessie Stone books, all 6 of his Sunny Randall books and four others. Two years ago Robert B. Parker died and I thought that was it for my Spenser reading. But no. There was another Spenser already scheduled for release that summer, another Jesse Stone for the following winter, and a final Spenser to be posthumously released last summer.
Even that wasn’t it. Robert B. Parker’s widow Joan Parker personally chose Ace Atkins to keep Spenser alive. Atkins was chosen, according to Joan, because of his vast knowledge of the Spenser series and everything about it. This summer the new book is “Robert B. Parker’s Spenser – Lullaby” by Ace Atkins.
So why does Ace get a D? The Spenser story itself is okay. I’ll give it a B-. He thankfully only spends a little time having Spenser gush about Susan. All the other usual characters are there: Hawk, Martin Quirk and Frank Belson from BPD, Epstein from the FBI, Vinnie Morris the shooter, gangster Tony Marcus with sidekicks Junior and Ty Bop. He digs up bad guys from earlier books: Joe Broz, Joe’s son Gerry, and Gino Fish. One problem is that for a guy who allegedly knows the books so well that he got the rights to continue the series he gets a lot of things wrong.
Some character examples: Spenser is presented as what I call a Jazz Snob. That’s someone who listens to jazz and refers to old jazz artists by only one name. Monk. Coltrane. Parker. The idea is that if you, the reader, don’t know the first names of these artists you’re an uncouth ignoramus. I can buy a character being a Jazz Snob, but that has never been the case with Spenser in 39 previous books. Atkins doesn’t even do his jazz homework very well. He has Spenser in his apartment in Boston tuning to WICN to listen to Ella. What’s wrong with that? WICN is a low-power public radio station in Worcester, which is 50 miles away. The WICN signal goes about 20 miles and doesn’t come close to reaching Boston and the station does not show up in the Boston ratings, so Spenser would not be able to listen to it in his brick apartment building on Marlborough Street. If Atkins had done some homework he could have said that Spenser tuned to “Eric in the Evening” on WGBH. Or just skipped the jazz stuff altogether because it has nothing to do with the story.
Vinnie Morris is described as an impeccably dressed man. Crisp white shirt, tie perfectly knotted, nice crease in his suit pants, shoes polished to a spit shine. That doesn’t sound at all like the Vinnie who has already appeared in about 20 of the first 39 Spenser books. It does sound exactly like Martin Quirk. Maybe Ace was confused. In one scene, Hawk walks into Spenser’s office clomping in cowboy boots, and Spenser thinks to himself that Hawk always makes a loud entrance. That’s the exact opposite of every other book where Spenser talks about how silently and stealthily Hawk appears and disappears. In the story, Spenser is hired by a 14-year-old girl name Mattie to find out who killed her mother four years earlier. In one conversation about people who were possibly involved Mattie asks, “Was she boinking him?” Boinking?? As I write this, spell-check keeps trying to change it to “bouncing.” It must think nobody would say boinking, because nobody would. Especially a 14-year-old girl. She might say hooking up. Or getting busy. But not boinking.
That’s not the biggest problem with the book. Spenser is a Boston PI and all or at least part of every story takes place in Boston. Parker made a point of using real locations and real streets and described them in detail. Parker “got” Boston. Ace Atkins clearly does not. For the Boston stuff Ace gets a D-, and that’s being generous. For some reason he makes everything in Boston sound worse than it is. Even the nice stuff.
There are so many mistakes – it’s practically one per page – that I started making a list. Here’s just a portion of it:
“We had lunch in Beacon Hill.” One would not be “in” a hill, one would be “on” one. That should be on Beacon Hill.
“I stopped at the Broadway Market on Harvard Square.” It’s actually called the Broadway Marketplace, it’s way on the other side of Harvard Yard, Broadway doesn’t go through Harvard Square, and you wouldn’t say “on” Harvard Square anyway. You’d say “in” Harvard Square.
“I drove back to Back Bay.” No, it’s the Back Bay.
“People walking their dog in the Common.” No, that would be “on” the Common.
“I sat on the bench in front of the Four Seasons looking at the tundra of Boston Common.” Since when has there been a Four Seasons anywhere that overlooks a tundra? For one thing, the Four Seasons in Boston does not overlook the Common, it overlooks the Public Garden, and even in February it’s a spectacular view and nothing even remotely like a tundra. Makes you wonder whether Ace has ever seen the Public Garden or the Common.
“I drove through Copley and hopped on the Interstate.” No. No one says, “The Interstate” because we have several of them. I-90, I-93 and I-95 among others. What he should have said (a borrowed line from Mike Birbiglia) was, “I got on the Pike at Copley Square.”
“I drove down I-93 to the South Boston exit.” What’s missing from that? Spenser would have been driving through the O’Neill Tunnel. It was known as the Big Dig and was famous for being the most expensive Public Works construction project ever. The exit Spenser takes is in the tunnel. An obvious piece of local color that was missed. I wonder where this Ace Atkins is from?
There’s more. Remember, this is all first person Spenser POV:
“I jogged along Commonwealth.” Nobody around Boston would ever say that. The way to say that, and Spenser himself has done it multiple times in previous books, is “I jogged down the Mall on Comm Ave.”
“I drove north on Arlington and turned into Marlborough to park my car.” No he didn’t. Arlington Street is one-way south, and that part of Marlborough Street is one-way east. You could hit “Arlington Street Boston” on Google Earth, look at the cars and easily figure that out.
“I drove down Storrow and passed Boston University.” It’s known as BU, and if Ace knew what he was talking about he could have referred to the grassy area between the library and Storrow Drive that overlooks the Charles by the local nickname “BU Beach.” How about, “I drove past BU Beach, but it was February so there were no female students sunning themselves on the grassy knoll.” Something like that.
“I turned onto Kenmore and into Beacon.” Okay, the way to say that would be, “I turned onto Beacon Street and into Kenmore Square.”
“I passed the big brick bookstore under the Citgo sign.” This is the big Citgo sign you see in all of the Fenway Park home run shots that go over the Green Monster. He could have mentioned that. People from somewhere else reading it could think to themselves, “Oh, yeah…I’ve seen that.” But no. The bookstore is a Barnes & Noble, but maybe Ace didn’t name it because it might upset Amazon. They could have released a Kindle version that called it a book store and a Nook version that called it a Barnes & Noble. Whatever. But it’s a big and very recognizable store in a well-known location. And it isn’t a brick building. It’s stone. The facing of the building is not important to the story, but if you’re going to include it for color why not get it right?
“I pulled a u-turn on Beacon and headed east.” Really? Beacon Street is one-way. When you pull a u-ey in Kenmore Square you wind up on Comm Ave heading downtown. Ace describes it as having dingy bars with trash cans out front. Comm Ave from Kenmore Square to the Public Garden is the widest boulevard in America and one of the most spectacular, designed to replicate the Champs Elysees in Paris.
“I weaved through traffic on The JFK.” “The” JFK? It’s not a freeway in California, it’s just a regular city street. JFK Street runs for three blocks…from Harvard Square to the Charles River. One of the three blocks is one-way going the wrong way. It’s also constantly jammed, so you’d never have a chance to weave. You’d inch along and try to avoid hitting people on bikes wearing earbuds. In the two blocks he’s supposedly weaving down you’re surrounded by Harvard River Houses, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Weld Boathouse, the Charles River, Harvard Business School and Harvard Stadium. All would have been colorful things to mention, but if you’ve never been there you wouldn’t know that.
Other real things he gets wrong: A couple of times Ace refers to some guy in Southie wearing a scully cap. It’s actually called a scally cap – with an a. A tweed snap-brim cap that cabbies always wore in old movies. Popular with irish folks. Perhaps Ace asked someone what was an old-style Bostony thing to wear and was told a scally cap, but didn’t write it down. (If you Google “scully cap” it says, “did you mean scally cap?” so this is something an editor should have caught.)
He describes the stretch of Old Colony Ave (he just says Old Colony, not knowing that people here don’t use street names that way) between Dorchester (meaning Dorchester Ave, which he should have called “Dot Ave”) and the circle at Day Boulevard. He says that stretch is filled with used car lots, bars, closed up store fronts and check cashing places. None of which are on that stretch. At the circle he describes a convenience store where you supposedly have to speak to the cashier through a glass partition because it’s such a high-crime area. The convenience store exists, but it’s nothing like that. It’s just a regular convenience store. There’s also an interesting piece of history about that store that Ace could have used if he had bothered to check it out. In the book, one of the bad guys that Ace digs up from earlier Spenser books is Joe Broz. Joe was a major gangster in town who has been missing for about ten years. Presumed either dead or hiding out somewhere, but now Joe has returned. Seems he was hiding out in plain sight on the beach. This sounds very much like the Whitey Bulger story. The interesting tidbit is that Whitey actually owned the above mentioned convenience store and he bought a state lottery ticket there and won a few million dollars. With a ticket he bought at his own store! It was investigated and the Mass Lottery Commission upheld the award. It would have been more interesting local color than having Spenser drive the wrong way on one-way streets.
Mattie lives in the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project in South Boston. Ace makes it sound old and run-down, which it is, but not as run-down as he makes it sound. He describes the red brick buildings and the surroundings, but fails to throw in an interesting tidbit of color. On the sign for the Mary Ellen McCormack it says, “Oldest in the Nation.” It’s worth a mention, but if you’ve never seen the place you wouldn’t know it.
Spenser refers to a “sack” on three different occasions. “He ate some french fries from a McDonald’s sack.” “Hawk brought some coffee and a sack of corn muffins from Dunkin’ Donuts.” “We got a sack of peanuts at Fenway.” Okay, at Fenway Park when you call out for peanuts a guy will toss them to you. It’s part of the fun. And none of the aforementioned come in a sack. A sack is something you’d see at a Patriots game. Around these here parts what Ace is calling a sack is known as a paper bag.
A couple of times Spenser says that he has Van Meer prints at his apartment. Van Meer is an artist in Nova Scotia who sells originals for about $350. The prints can’t be a big enough deal for Spenser to mention. Perhaps it was a typo the editors missed and Atkins meant Vermeer, the 1600’s Dutch artist who did “Girl with a Pearl Earring” among others.
Some others. This is from Mattie, the 14-year-old who hires Spenser:
“The University knocked down those old buildings on the Point.” Here’s why Mattie would never say that: She’s talking about the UMass Boston campus at Columbia Point. The JFK Library is right next to it. Both were built in the 1970’s. Late 70’s to be sure, but still, this happened about twenty years before Mattie would have been born. What’s more, neither Mattie nor anyone else would refer to it as The University. Maybe there’s only one university where Ace comes from, but in Boston there are about 47 of them, including two of the top 5 in the US News ranking. She would have said, “UMass Boston” (or more likely just “UMass,” because nobody confuses it with UMass in Amherst), and that’s how anyone who knows anything about the area would refer to it.
And it gets worse: Hawk, who is black (as anyone who ever read Spenser or watched the TV show knows) and afraid of no one, supposedly doesn’t want to go into South Boston without wearing a Kevlar vest. He remembers seeing, “Run, Nigger, run” painted on a door. A neighbor of Mattie, long-time Southie resident, says, “It was nice here before they moved the blacks in.” Oh, please. Nobody moved anybody anywhere. For those who don’t know, in 1974 Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered cross-town school bussing so that the schools would be more racially mixed. Students could always go to any school they wanted to, but most chose to go to the school in their neighborhood. Back then neighborhoods were nowhere near as ethnically mixed as they are today. The bussing melee back in 1974 was not because black students were being bussed into South Boston, it was because kids in Southie who had been going to the local school three blocks away where all their friends also went were suddenly being bussed way across town to another school. In many cases it was an hour-long bus ride each way. Ace clearly doesn’t know that history.
One piece of history he does get right is the Battle of Bunker Hill, which he “describes” as Spenser is driving through Charlestown. A decent paragraph of Boston history, but if you Google “Battle of Bunker Hill” it looks like Ace just hit Control C and Control V. Seriously, it’s the Wikipedia entry almost word for word. And not credited. By now I’m Googling Ace Atkins to see where’s he’s from, because it’s obviously nowhere near Boston. Turns out he’s from Troy, Alabama. Went to Auburn, which is also in Alabama. He’s probably never even been here, which is why he gets all his streets wrong. Where was the beach where Joe Broz was hanging out? Alabama. Please. Did BP pay Ace to say that as part of the oil spill mitigation? Any gangster like Whitey Bulger who is hanging out in plain sight on the beach would be in Florida or California. Maybe Cape Cod in the summer. Not Alabama.
I also I Googled Troy, which has one university. So that’s why he got the UMass thing wrong. Troy also has a murder rate double that of Boston and a black population percentage five times greater than Boston’s. So that would explain Ace’s misunderstanding of the racial climate. This is Massachusetts, well-known as a very liberal state. It’s not Alabama, which has the widely-held image of being 49th in everything. The Massachusetts Constitution, written by John Adams in 1780, is the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world, and it specifically says that slavery is unconstitutional. This was 85 years before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and 177 years before the Governor of Alabama stood in the doorway and blocked two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama. Ace Atkins’ misunderstanding of the racial climate in Boston compared to that in Alabama is beyond ignorant. it’s offensive.
If this were a John Grisham novel that takes place in a made-up county somewhere in Mississippi, or a Scott Turow story set in a nonexistent Midwest city, none of the above would matter. There would be no issues with wrong names and incorrect driving directions. If all the characters were invented by Ace Atkins there would be no problem with character continuity. But it isn’t. It’s the 40th Spenser book, and the places in Boston are real and in many cases well-known. It’s too bad that an okay story was ruined because of lazy research and sloppy editing. Now my summer reading habit of 32 years has come to an end.
-Don Kelley, Boston native and former Spenser fan.