Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Spenser Detective Novels: How Ace Atkins Channels Robert B. Parker

Photo by Joe Worthem
Robert B. Parker's last Spenser novel to be published was Sixkill, which introduces Native American Zebulon Sixkill, who becomes Spenser's protege in the fine arts of sleuthing. Since Parker's Sixkill, author Ace Atkins has written seven Spenser novels, the last I've read being Old Black Magic. I was curious about how Atkins would handle the Spenser novels. Could he write with the same rhythms and little stylistic beats that Parker employed? Could he characterize Parker's cast so that continuity of character was maintained and believable? Could the Spenser novels continue to evolve and not become petrified, Atkins slavishly mimicking Parker's art and craft?

Simply stated: would Atkins' novels of the Spenser saga possess a body but lack a soul?

I read Atkins' first Spenser novels, Lullaby and Wonderland, with some misgivings. I was not displeased but was overall uninspired to read more. There were moments where the novels flowed well--and they weren't disagreeable--but there was a certain heavy-handedness and woodenness to the action and dialogue. Parker's use of short chapters that always ended with that clever little drum roll of action and dialogue too often seemed obvious or contrived. Atkins was competent, consistent, and respectful with his material--and just too competent, consistent, and respectful with the Spenser oeuvre. I was pleased to read more about Spenser and company, but I was not inspired to read more. At least not fully inspired. There were, however, moments when Boston was Parker's Boston and Spenser was Parker's Spenser.

And so I tried more of Atkins' Spenser novels, discovering something deeply satisfying and revelatory. The new Spenser novels transformed from clever, masterful Parker forgeries to creative, innovative detective novels in their own and Adkins' right. In Adkins' Spenser novel Old Black Magic, Spenser has a conversation with a competitive sleuth about how the Brit is wearing a Red Sox baseball hat. "'You should try and curl the bill of the hat,' I said. 'You look ridiculous.'" A few lines later, Spenser observes, "Marston smiled up at me, looking very silly in the Sox cap. He wore it far back on his head like a child, with his hair loose over his forehead." It took Atkins a time, but he has fully learned how to "curl the bill of the hat" and wear it properly. Most importantly, though, Atkins is no longer wearing Parker's writing hat. He's got his own Sox cap now, all broken in, and it fits him perfectly.

Can Atkins write with the same rhythms and little stylistic beats that Parker employed?

Atkins is obviously an attentive reader because he is able to use those signature stylistic patterns and mannerisms that made Parker's development of the Spenser novels so readable and identifiable. Some of Parker's "Spenser style" included short chapters, ending each chapter with some clever beat so that each chapter was a self-contained vignette, attention to clothes and cooking, and "readiness is all," that powerful force of protocols infused with personal integrity.

As Atkins has written the novels, the good event is that the inclusion of the elements mentioned above (and more, of course) have become smoother. There is the sense that Atkins began with a list of stylistic elements that he felt must be included in the novels to create a familiar environment for the reader, yet over time those elements became more natural and less contrived. The most obvious example of this "feeling comfortable in the other guy's coat" is that as Atkins' writing has continued through the Spenser novels, the chapters have gotten longer and the end-of-chapter bada-bings have become more subtle. Atkins still pays homage to the master, yet he has discovered his own affinity toward those elements.

Can Atkins characterize Parker's cast so that continuity of character is maintained and believable?

The short answer to this is "yes." I think Atkins' ability to work with Parker's characters will also improve with time. I believe this because Atkins' utilization of the Spenser cast has improved throughout the novels he has written. There are occasional missteps, such as in Old Black Magic (which I thought well-written), there are some points where I think the character of Vinnie is too glib in his dialogue. However, these smaller moments are minor compared to how believable and true the Vinnie Morris character reads as compared to Parker's characterization.

I think Atkins has chosen a very clever and effective course of action regarding Parker's characters. What Atkins has done is to take Parker's minor characters, choose those he has an affinity with, and then to develop them in his novels, to expand the characters, to essentially make them his own. He has done this effectively with Vinnie Morris and also with Henry Cimoli and the Harbor Health Club.

Atkins has also deftly managed the adoption of Parker's cast by not saturating his novels environments with the old gang--not all at once. Hawk is off working in South America; Z is setting up business on the West Coast. Quirk has been promoted and there is a new precinct captain. Atkins then can interact with Parker's characters, but not all at once. There can be Susan and Pearl. There can be a segment with Quirk, a bit of Belson, some moments with Rita Fiore, but not a sink-or-swim environment like Parker's novel Potshot, which even Parker struggled to manage.

Atkins introduces new characters like Large Marj Phillips in Old Black Magic, art museum manager and hardass, a character totally natural to Spenser's universe. Times have changed, too. Characters have aged. This is to Atkins' advantage because we see thug Jackie DeMarco not as Parker described him but as Atkins must newly envision him with the passing of years. All these realities of a long series of novels about a single character have led to Atkins successfully maintaining the believability of the Spenser characters.

Can the Spenser novels continue to evolve and not become petrified, Atkins slavishly mimicking Parker's art and craft?

The best choice Atkins has made--and that the publishers and editors have allowed him--is that he has chosen to write his own Spenser novels. Atkins is a novelist in his own right. His website says the following: "New York Times Bestselling author Ace Atkins has been nominated for every major award in crime fiction, including the Edgar three times, twice for novels about former U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson. He has written eight books in the Colson series and continued Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser character after Parker’s death in 2010, adding seven best-selling novels in that series." Reading Crossroad Blues, Atkins' first novel, is to see how Atkins has adapted his skills and styles to the Spenser saga; his has not excised them. Robert B. Parker has praise for the novel: "Crossroad Blues sings. It proves that big guys can write, and that Ace Atkins can write better than most." No, Atkins does not slavishly mimic Parker's Spenser novels. He has found his own voice, and he sings his own interpretation.

In the end, the only way the Spenser tome can continue is if the saga, the characters, and the soul of the novels continue to evolve. Atkins and the Spenser publishers are on the right path. Let me just come out and say it--I enjoyed Old Black Magic more than some of the Spenser novels Parker wrote. It reminds me of some of the earlier Spenser novels, where Parker's style was still more fluid, where his chapters were longer, and where the strict attention to detail and action superseded character. "Just the facts, ma'am." The universe of Spenser now lies in the hands of Ace Atkins. As the saying goes, you built the channel before it rains. Atkins was a skilled mystery novelist, praised by Robert B. Parker, before Atkins ever wrote a Spenser novel. The canal has been surveyed, the channel dug, now let the Spenser novels flow.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Tri Odd: An Exploration of the Quirky, a Free Ebook

What do you do when you've finished your novel, published it, and are ready to embark on the next project? I decided to stretch my writing envelope, to try some characterizations, genres, and topics that I had not attempted before. One consequence of that experiment in writing is the free ebook Tri Odd, three flash fiction stories where I set some writing ground rules that were--for me, anyway--non-typical.

I wanted to write about characters I didn't like or admire. I wanted to try writing something besides fantasy, to "cleanse my palate" after my hundred-thousand-word novel The Stone Dragon. I wasn't tired of fantasy; I just wanted to try something new. The end result was a science fiction story, a thriller/horror story, and a crime story. Macabre? Quirky? Maybe, but experiments under a thousand words. I wasn't ready to channel Stephen King for a couple hundred thousand words.

"Cull" is a story about a retired English teacher, a wiry, elderly woman who is very much in control . . . and as hard as nails. She loves rabbits, breeds them for show, and has organized her life just as she wants it to be. Then an interruption occurs and the story begins. "Cull" was originally published in Metazen, an online daily fiction site which is now defunct.

"In the Beginning" is a science fiction story that was fun to write. I enjoy reading science fiction but had not ever written in the genre. The story provides a science fictional perspective to the Biblical story Genesis and how humanity has always had this thing about following directions. It was published by the online flash fiction website 365tomorrows, on New Year's Day.

"Spider" is a thriller/horror story. I'm not sure it can be classified as "horror" because I don't wallow in the creep factor, but there is a slow and subtle sidling up to the macabre situation that arises when one fixates on spiders in the month of October. The story was originally published by the website Every Day Fiction, on Halloween Day.

One powerful characteristic of flash fiction is the power of inference. In one thousand words or fewer, the reader must be provided clues so that the ramifications of the storyline can be inferred. The words stop but the story continues in the imagination of the reader. I enjoyed using that writing technique in these stories, of providing a kicker. In a very real way, flash fiction is much like poetry in that every word is composed in a manner to provide a "more than usual meaning."

Tri Odd is available as an ebook for free at the following links. Feel free to read the stories, and hopefully you will be inspired to read more of my writing.

Tri Odd at Amazon

Tri Odd at Smashwords

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Netflix Movie: The Hundred-Foot Journey

My wife and I are fans of Netflix's Chef's Table cooking series. It inspired us to watch the wonderful cooking movie Chef, starring Jon Favreau about a "taco truck" cook and his family, and now has inspired us to watch the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey, streaming now on Netflix. The movie provides a great evening's entertainment and is an inspiring and thoughtful production that includes a side order of romance.

The IMDB storyline of the movie, written by Kenneth Chisolm, follows:
The family of talented cook, Hassan Kadam, has a life filled with both culinary delights and profound loss. Drifting through Europe after fleeing political violence in India that killed the family restaurant business and their mother, the Kadams arrive in France. Once there, a chance auto accident and the kindness of a young woman, Marguerite, in the village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val inspires Papa Kadam to set up a Indian restaurant there. Unfortunately, this puts the Kadams in direct competition with the snobbish Madame Mallory's acclaimed haute cuisine establishment across the street where Marguerite also works as a sous-chef. The resulting rivalry eventually escalates in personal intensity until it goes too far. In response, there is a bridging of sides initiated by Hassan, Marguerite and Madame Mallory herself, both professional and personal, that encourages an understanding that will change both sides forever.
 The satisfying resolutions of the conflicts of the film are founded in the consciousness of the individual characters. The bigotry and violence that occur are ultimately resolved not by social awareness or education but by the personal insights and values of the individuals involved. Love, acceptance, integrity, and compassion are the pillars of this movie, yet those values are not over-played. The movie progresses with its dramatic and comedic elements, unreeling seamlessly the choices and actions of the characters. And most of this is centered in the beautiful French countryside.

The main romantic and dramatic pairings in the movie are Helen Mirren (Madam Mallory), restaurant owner, and Om Puri (Papa Kadam), family patriarch, the autumn-romance couple; and Manish Dayal (Hassan), chef extraordinaire, and Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), sous chef, the younger romantic interest. However, romance is not at center stage; it is a tension and an unspoken hope throughout most of the story, secondary to the ambitions and anguishes of the characters that weave the fabric of the story. The acting in the movie was a nice touch--masters of the craft in Mirren and Puri combining both drama and comedy in a believable mix, Dayal and Le Bon providing a refreshing reminder of the winsome power of discovered love. The directing consists of subtle beats and light touches; the costumes are believable, lovely, and at times outrageous.

I just have to come out and say that the manner in which the conflicts of the story are resolved is immensely satisfying. The action reveals that it is possible to see what needs to be done and then to make the correct decision. In this movie, the main characters search for meaning and fulfillment in their lives. They wrestle with their duties, ambitions, and sorrows, and that struggle is believable. They make their way through, though, and complete the journey to become individuals of balance and integration.

Nowadays, there is so much attention placed on the crudity and roughness of the world. This movie was a refreshing reminder that we define our world and that we need not be scarred by the vicissitudes and challenges we face. We can prevail. We can find beauty and love. We can make a positive impact. This movie certainly did that for me. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Building a Free Ebook--Tri-Odd

I haven't published anything for a while beyond my blog--and I'm interested in getting back into my independent publishing part of my writing. Therefore, I'm putting together a free ebook of three flash fictions stories that were published in three online magazines a little less than ten years ago.

  • "Cull," in Metazen, 2010 (magazine no longer active)
  • "Spider," in Every Day Fiction, 2010
  • "In the Beginning," 365 tomorrows
I mention these three and more in a blog post, "A Cat Has Nine Lives--How Many a Writer?" that summarizes my publishing over the last years. I've tried quite a few different genres and formats!

I am glad that in this small way I'm refreshing my publishing sites, reviewing the steps of publishing, and reviving my writing beyond blogging. I'm also enjoying reminding myself how to do some basic work with photos in order to create blog headers and book covers. All good--and useful--skills.

It's a cold, cold Iowa winter, my wife's gone on business, and I'm looking forward to exploring a new publishing venture. Without cost to me or my readers, no worries! I'll let you know when the ebook is available.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The "Metacognitive" Blog Article

Camping with a teardrop or tiny trailer has many advantages not available with larger RVs.
For the author, writing when camping is a part of his glamping.
I'm sure this has been done before--lots--but I don't know the name for the blogging technique where the blog writer/administrator writes an additional piece that utilizes content from earlier, similar posts. Metacognitive means "thinking about thinking," and I use the term for this post to describe a post that reflects on the content, themes, and ideas contained in a blog's prior articles. Since my most active blog at this time is my camping blog, Green Goddess Glamping, I will reference that blog for illustrative examples of "metacognitive blogging."

I created Green Goddess Glamping almost six months ago and have posted twenty-six articles as of now, mid January. Learning from my earlier blogs, I have limited my labels for posts to eight, hoping I never get over a dozen. Too many labels, I feel, become so cumbersome that the organizing device stops working. The labels I've created so far are the following: Camp Cooking, Camp Routines, Gearing Up, Glamping, Holiday Themes, The First Expeditions, Why a Tiny Trailer? and Tiny Trailer Owner Profiles.

As I'm writing this in January, camping season is on hiatus--either that or I camp in single digit to below-zero weather. Analyzing the articles I've written, I realize that some posts have similarities, and since my opportunities for camping travelogues are zeroed out right now, one writing opportunity for the GGG blog is to reflect and write retrospectives utilizing content from previous posts. One such recently published article, which analyzes the content of three earlier blog posts, is "Why Choose a Teardrop or Tiny Trailer?" These three original articles had some diversity, being labeled under the categories of Why a Tiny Trailer?, Glamping, and The First Expeditions. Although the original articles had diverse focus, each did include the theme of the rewards of minimalist trailer camping.

Developing "Why Choose a Teardrop or Tiny Trailer?" not only creates new content for the GGG camping (and also this) blog, I'm also directing readers back to earlier articles by providing links, thereby encouraging them to spend more time on my site. The camping article also utilizes keywords for search engines because the article focuses on a topic or current interest for my website's content: teardrop or tiny camping trailers; that focus is positive and not contrived because it is a relevant topic explored in a useful manner.

My parents' mode of travel on their honeymoon, 1946.
The concept or "recycling" or reusing previous content is not new. I remember reading a while back about a freelance writer who traveled to a city and experiencing its charms--and then wrote three articles for various publications: one about the tourist sites, one about food, and a third about one of the city's historical sites. The author explained this as simply an efficient use of time. The same can be said for revisiting previously written blog posts. Some (and perhaps most) will contain facets that were in shadow during the first telling but which can be revealed to good effect with a shift of perspective a new article provides.

All three camping articles I used for my new article dealt with concepts relating to having a fulfilling camping experience, an experience with "a balance of simplicity and comfort, ease and elegance." Each article illustrates a different facet of that positive, balanced camping experience. Each article provides examples of how camping in a tiny trailer provides a unique, satisfying camping experience.
My reflective, "metacognitive" overview of my camping experience as revealed in specific a blog post is first of all instructive to me, providing me with clues as to how I can personally increase the rewards of camping. It is instructive for me both in terms of personal pursuits and also as the owner of a tiny trailer. The focus of the article also increases its impact; by targeting a specific audience, the article differentiates itself from more general articles. If we write not only to teach but also to learn, then "metacognitive blogging" allows a writer to both reflect and publish, a win-win writing situation.