It’s a Mystery:  “Being a lawyer doesn’t feel as honest as being a good con man”

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Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic
By Ace Atkins
Putnam, 2018

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Robert B. Parker’s The Godwulf Manuscript (1973) introduced the character of Spenser, “with an s like the poet.” At the time of his sudden death, at 77, from a heart attack in January 2010, Parker had written nearly 70 novels and created a host of characters. But it is his series (39 in all) starring Spenser, the literary, wisecracking Boston private eye that are the most cherished by his legion of fans.

Spenser was created in the knight-errant tradition of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. (Parker wrote his PhD dissertation on the novels of Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Ross Macdonald.) Unlike Marlowe, who was a traditional lone-wolf, Spenser has had an enduring relationship with Susan Silverman. She is smashing and smart, a match for him in every way. They meet in the second book, God Save the Child (1974), when she is a guidance counselor, and by the time of Valediction (1984) she has a PhD from Harvard in clinical psychology. As the love of his life, she reaches him like no one else can and what they have counters the uglier elements of his chosen profession.

Then there is Hawk. He’s a larger-than-life African American man who is Spenser’s most trusted ally. He enters the series in the fourth book, Promised Land. Hawk is the man he turns to whenever he is in grave danger, which is quite often. Hawk is unhampered by conscience and much about him remains an enigma even to Spenser. We see constant evidence that his skill set to deal with violence has no moral limits. But, and it is a large but, Hawk is one of the most charismatic characters ever created. Susan adores him and the feeling is mutual. One of his affectations is to downplay his intelligence. Hard to do when you’re dating lady professors from Harvard, among others. Plus, the dialogue between Spenser and Hawk is as sharp as it gets.

One of my personal Parker favorites is Looking for Rachel Wallace (1980). Rachel is a lesbian feminist and when the publication of her newest book brings death threats, Spenser is hired. This requires Spenser to overcome his distaste for radical feminism. It also requires Rachel to overcome her aversion to strong wiseass men with a protective instinct. Of course, they work it out and even become friends. She goes on to play a pivotal role in A Catskill Eagle (1985). That novel is also her introduction to Hawk:

Hawk leaned against the doorframe…. He was looking at Rachel Wallace.

“Why are you looking at me?”  Rachel Wallace said.

“You a nice-looking woman,” Hawk said.

“Thank you,” she said. Hawk continued to look at her and Rachel looked amused and turned to me.

“Hawk cannot believe,” I said, “that any woman who is not ugly can fail to feel lust for him.”

Rachel Wallace’s smile widened and she nodded her head.

“Of course,” she said. She looked back at Hawk. “It is difficult even for me,” she said.

“You really a lesbian,” Hawk said.

“I really am,” Rachel Wallace said.

“Well,” Hawk said, “save money on diaphragms I guess.”

Rachel Wallace, halfway into a sip of scotch, burst into laughter…Hawk grinned.

“Hawk has that special insight into minority situations,” I said.

To many, including Ace Atkins, who now writes the Spenser novels, Early Autumn (1981) is one of his best. Atkins has called it “his masterpiece.” It’s about a badly neglected boy, Paul Giacomin, whom Spenser rescues and mentors. Paul evolves beautifully through that novel and several others, becoming like a son to Spenser. With help from both Susan and Spenser, he also manages to fulfill his dream of becoming a dancer, thus introducing Spenser to a whole new world with its own vocabulary and a field with very high standards.

It must be said that all of the Spenser novels are to be cherished. At the time of his death, Parker had earned his place as one of the finest authors of American crime fiction. As John D. MacDonald said, the Spenser series had “freshness, humor, taste and tension.”

In Ace Atkins, tapped to continue the Spenser series, the publisher couldn’t have found a better fit. Atkins, a 47-year-old journalist turned novelist, had been a Parker fan for decades. He’s essentially a Robert B. Parker scholar which helped him to pass muster with Parker’s wife of more than 50 years, Joan. Parker dedicated all his books to her and she is, as any Spenser fan can tell you, the inspiration for the character of Susan Silverman. As Parker’s son David said in a recent interview, Atkins is not only a “good writer” but a real charmer. “I think my mother had a crush on him, and since Ace knew so much about my father, it was like a little piece of him came back to her.”

Atkins’ first Spenser book “Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby” came out in 2012. His seventh is “Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic.” As the novel opens, Spenser is asked to look into a famous unsolved art heist that occurred twenty years ago at one of Boston’s premier art museums, the Winthrop. The prize among three stolen artworks that are still missing is El Greco’s The Gentleman in Black. The request comes from a fellow investigator named Locke who has been chasing the painting for years. Now he’s dying from cancer so he’s bequeathing his files to Spenser with the request to continue the search.  As Locke puts it:

“This work is something altogether different. A cornerstone of Spanish and art history.”

“How much?”

“One can’t always put a price on priceless,” he said. But somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty or seventy million.”

Like any serious art connoisseur, I gave a low whistle.

Recent letters that the museum’s Director Marjorie Ward Phillips has been receiving makes reopening the case imperative.. The letters were very specific about details of the theft including an arcane detail that El Greco himself had written on the back of the canvas in his native Greek. Feeling the necessity of full disclosure, Locke confides that Marjorie is an altogether unpleasant person whose staff calls her Large Marj:

“A big personality?”

“How do I put this?” he said. “She has an ass the size of a steer and the disposition of a recently castrated bull.”

“If you’re trying to talk me into this,” I said. “You’re failing miserably.”

“Did I mention the five-million-dollar reward, plus covering your daily rate and all expenses?”

I smiled and turned over my hands, offering my palms. “Perhaps I could find time to meet with Large Marj.”

“I know you’re joking,” he said. “But for God’s sake, don’t let her ever hear you say that.”

Spenser meets with Marj and the museum’s board chairman Topper Townsend an overbearing stuffed shirt who sports a slick black cane with a silver handle for effect. He takes an instant dislike to Spenser. The feeling is mutual. In fact, by the time their meeting is finished, Spenser has several obscene fantasies about inflicting bodily harm on Topper with the cane. He’s not overly fond of Marj either, though she takes a shine to him and keeps Topper at bay. And as anyone who knows him can guess, Spenser cares a lot more about fulfilling Locke’s last request than the money or the company he has to keep.

Spenser teams up with his old “connected” pal Vinnie Morris, who knows a thing or two about crooks who are into art. Hawk is off in South America in this latest on one of his cryptic missions. It falls to Vinnie to fill the role of Spenser’s back-up buddy and he proves more than up to the task. Vinnie introduces Spenser to Devon Murphy a world class art thief who has robbed a lot of museums without getting caught:

”He once ripped a fucking Monet off the wall of the MFA and walked out like it was nobody’s business.”

“And who and why?” I said.

“I can guesstimate a little of the why,” he said. But you’re going to have to find out the who on your own. If it’s all the same to me, I’d rather not try to start my car in the morning with a gun to the back of my head.”

Murphy does give Spenser one juicy piece of advice, which is to ask the man who was guarding the museum at the time about the hookers:

“That’s how they got him?”

“Yeah,” Murphy said. “That part was all my idea. Sex works every freakin’ time.”

Even though the heist was successful, it is evident that the thieves were not a highly skilled Ocean’s 11 kind of crew, but rather clumsy smash-and-grab robbers. As Spenser looks for the long lost Gentleman in Black it becomes painfully clear that the painting has left a bloody trail in its wake since it was taken off the museum wall. As the chase ramps up, Spenser finds himself knee deep in VIHs (Very Important Hoods).  Before the case is over, he winds up irritating all kinds of unpleasant people from an angry police captain to a murderous mobster. In fact, he dubs the whole thing “a Mafia musical chairs”.

Robert B. Parker’s Old Black Magic is Atkins in his best imitation of the late author’s voice to date. The story was obviously inspired by the unsolved real heist of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990, a colorful enough case on its own.  Atkins has brilliantly added plenty of twists and turns. Plus, sly puss that he is, there is an amazing ending that is as amusing as it is shocking. And it happily promises a sequel!

Irma Heldman is a veteran publishing executive and book reviewer with a penchant for mysteries. One of her favorite gigs was her magazine column “On the Docket” under the pseudonym O. L. Bailey.