Iconic, tough-but-tender Boston PI Spenser delves into the black market art scene to investigate a decades-long unsolved crime of dangerous proportions.
The heist was legendary, still talked about twenty years after the priceless paintings disappeared from one of Boston's premier art museums. Most thought the art was lost forever, buried deep, sold off overseas, or, worse, destroyed as incriminating evidence. But when paint chips from the most valuable piece stolen, Gentlemen in Black by a Spanish master, arrives at the desk of a Boston journalist, the museum finds hope and enlists Spenser's help.
Soon the cold art case thrusts Spenser into the shady world of black market art dealers, aged Mafia bosses, and old vendettas. A five-million-dollar-reward by the museum's top benefactor, an aged, unlikable Boston socialite, sets Spenser and pals Vinnie Morris and Hawk onto a trail of hidden secrets, jailhouse confessions, and decades-old murders.
Set against the high-society art scene and the low-life back alleys of Boston, this is classic Spenser doing what he does best.
About the Author
ROBERT B. PARKER was the author of seventy books, including the legendary Spenser detective series, the novels featuring police chief Jesse Stone, and the acclaimed Virgil Cole-Everett Hitch westerns, as well as the Sunny Randall novels. Winner of the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award and long considered the undisputed dean of American crime fiction, he died in January 2010.ACE ATKINS is the Edgar-nominated author of nineteen books, including the forthcoming Quinn Colson novel The Fallen. Selected by the Robert B. Parker estate to continue the Spenser novels, most recently the New York Times-bestsellers Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn and Robert B. Parker's Kickback.
Read an Excerpt
i'm dying, spenser," the man said.
I nodded, not knowing what else to say. An early-summer rain beaded down my office window, dark gray skies hovering over Berkeley and Boylston as afternoon commuters jockeyed for position out of the city. Their taillights cast a red glow on slick streets. Somewhere a prowl car hit a siren, heading off to another crime. The man sitting before me smiled and nodded, his hands withered and liver-spotted. His name was Locke.
"How long have we known each other?" Locke said.
"A long time."
"But oddly never worked together?"
"Our work as investigators seldom crossed paths," I said. "Different peepholes."
"Recovering stolen art isn't really your thing."
"I've done it," I said. "Once. Or twice."
"You're familiar with the theft at the Winthrop?"
"Of course," I said. "It made all the papers. And TV. Biggest theft in Boston history."
"Biggest art theft ever," he said. "Next year will mark twenty years. I've chased those paintings most of that time, traveling from Dorchester to Denmark with not so much as an inkling of where they ended up. It's beyond frustrating. Maddening, really. And now, well, with things the way they are-"
"One was a Picasso?"
"That was the least valuable of the three," he said. "Picasso, Goya. But the prize of the Winthrop was also stolen, the El Greco. The Gentleman in Black. Are you familiar with the painting?"
"Some," I said. "I recall seeing it years ago. When I was young."
"When we were both young," Locke said.
He smiled and reached into his double-breasted suit jacket and pulled out a slick photocopy of a very serious-looking dude with a pointy black beard. The man wore a high-necked lacy shirt and a heavy black cloak. His eyes were very black and humorless.
"He looks like a guy who used to kick field goals for the Detroit Lions," I said. "Benny Ricardo."
"The subject is reputed to be Juan de Silva y Ribera, third marquis of Montemayor and the warden of the Alc‡zar of Toledo."
"Oh," I said. "Him."
"El Greco painted him in 1597," he said. "Well before the Pilgrims set foot in America. Long regarded as unimportant by the romantics, El Greco found new appreciation and fame among the impressionists and surrealists. Picasso in particular was a great admirer of El Greco. You see the distorted length of the man's neck, the off-kilter perspective?"
"Some have noted my own perspective is off-kilter," I said. "Although I admit to having more of an affinity for the Dutch Masters."
"I spotted your Vermeer prints when I walked in," he said. "You also have many fans at the Hammond. You helped recover, what was it? Lady with a Finch."
I nodded and offered him something to drink. It was that time of the day when I could bend to either whiskey or coffee. Locke, being a man of the arts, approved of the whiskey. I pulled out a bottle of Bushmills Black gifted to me by Martin Quirk and found two clean coffee mugs left to dry upside down beside the sink.
"Without being trite, that painting you recovered from the Hammond is nothing but a Rembrandt footnote," he said. "This work is something altogether different. A cornerstone of Spanish and art history."
"One can't always put a price on the priceless," he said. "But somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty or seventy million."
Like any serious art connoisseur, I gave a low whistle.
"I wanted to recover the piece myself," he said. "But now? I have to understand the realities of my situation."
"I'm very sorry."
"And I'm sorry to march into your office with such maudlin conversation," Locke said. "But my doctor told me to get my affairs in order, whatever the hell that means. I figured this was the first order, have someone to pass along my files, endless notes, and potential leads. I grew too old for this case two years ago. The Winthrop continues to push, with the anniversary coming up next week and these letters arriving every other week."
"Yes," Locke said, sipping the whiskey. "Not really ransom notes. But from someone who claims to have knowledge of the theft."
"Do you think they're real?"
"Perhaps," Locke said. "The letters were very specific about details of the theft. The writer was also aware of an arcane detail of the painting. El Greco himself had written on the back of the canvas in his native Greek."
"Have they asked for money?"
"No," Locke said. "No demands have been made. And no means of communication has been offered. The letters have been addressed to the museum's director, Marjorie Ward Phillips. Have you and Susan ever met Marjorie at a fund-raiser?"
I shook my head and picked up the coffee mug. The mug advertised Kane's Donuts in Saugus, a place I considered to have made many fine works of art.
"Marjorie is a determined, if altogether unpleasant, person," Locke said. "Her 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."
"Lovely," I said. "Can't wait to meet her."
"Oh, she'll charm you," Locke said, chuckling. "At first. There will be martinis and long talks of art's value to the city of Boston. But don't ever disagree with her. Or challenge her in front of the board. Once that's done, you will be visited by the hatred of a thousand suns."
"If you're trying to talk me into this," I said. "You're failing miserably."
"You must take this case, Spenser," Locke said. "You must. If not, they've threatened to offer the contract to this British investigator. A young man from London who, recent successes aside, has all the earmarks of a four-flusher."
"At the moment, I'm working two separate cases," I said.
"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."
"Hatred of a thousand suns?"
"And then some."
Locke smiled, straightening in his chair, and buttoned the top button of his jacket. Both eyes stared at me, one slightly off and one roaming my face with deep sadness and intelligence. His face sagged, his blue eyes drained of much color and life.
"It might be months," he said. "But probably weeks. I have a driver. He's waiting for me downstairs now."
"May I help you out?"
"First," he said. "Will you accept an old man's dying wish?"
"Damn, Locke," I said. "You do go for a hard sell."
"I don't have time to mince words," he said. "I really think they're onto something now. And the last thing the museum needs is an amateur, unfamiliar to Boston, skulking about. This other detective is of the worst sort. He's trying to charm the board into letting him take the case. But they need someone who understands thuggery and violence well beyond red-velvet walls."
"I should add that to my business card."
Locke laughed and reached for the Irish whiskey. He drained it quickly and replaced the mug on my desk.
"Why did you stay on this long if you felt like it was hopeless?"
Locke smiled. "There's something almost mystical about this painting," he said. "Believe me, you'll see. Maybe a way of touching the past. We are all just passing through this world. We'll be gone soon enough. But this painting has remained for more than five hundred years. Perhaps recovering it would have been my shot at immortality?"
I nodded. I refilled our glasses.
We sat and drank the rest of the whiskey in silence. After a bit, he stood, shook my hand, and without a word walked out the door.
large marj?" susan said.
"Do you know her?"
"I've met Marjorie Ward Phillips from the Winthrop," she said. "But I've never heard her called that horrible name."
Susan and I stood at my kitchen island in my Navy Yard condo as I stirred a fork in my cast-iron skillet simmering with kale, onions, and hickory-smoked bacon. The sprawling brick building had once been a dockside warehouse with big picture windows looking onto the harbor and across to Boston. Pearl snuggled in a ball on the couch as the rain continued in the night. Every few minutes, she'd lift her head and sniff for the bacon scent.
"I understand the nickname is only whispered by museum staff."
"I don't know her all that well," Susan said. "We've met socially. She gives to both Community Servings and Jumpstart. As far as I know, she is both well-liked and respected in the art scene. She seems like a perfectly lovely woman."
"Tomorrow morning, I meet with her and the head of the museum board," I said. "A man named Topper."
"Yeah," I said. "It's going to be hard not to ask."
"If he's being haunted by the ghosts of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett?"
I saluted her with my Sam Adams.
"What could possibly go wrong?"
"Hard to turn down Locke."
"The worst," I said. "He said it could be weeks. Months at best."
I added a bit of sea salt and cracked pepper to the pan. As I worked, Susan walked over to my record player and slipped on a Sarah Vaughan album. In a Dutch oven, I'd already cooked two organic chicken breasts with heirloom tomatoes to serve over white beans. The beans came from a can. Everything else from the Boston Public Market. Living on the east end of town had widened my choices in the city. Besides a few small markets in Beacon Hill, I didn't have many options on Marlborough Street. Less still after my apartment was destroyed by an arsonist.
I turned off the heat and pulled out two china plates from under the kitchen station. The chicken had cooled a bit, and I placed a breast on each plate along with the cherry tomatoes and white beans. A little sprig of rosemary on top.
"Fancy," Susan said.
"Black-skillet cooking," I said. "Getting back to my Wyoming roots."
"Yee-haw," Susan said.
"Gorgeous Jewish women don't say 'yee-haw.'"
"What do they say?"
Susan tossed a kitchen towel at me. I ducked.
I set both plates on the table, lit a small candle, and dimmed the lights overhead. Sarah sang about a flower crying for the dew. Susan guarded our food from Pearl while I retrieved another beer and popped the top. When I returned, she was staring out the window at the marina and Boston, the Custom House Tower shining gold and proud from across the harbor.
"I like it."
"The view," she said. "The move took some adjustment. But I like the space. Everything seems so wide open and uncluttered. The city almost looks peaceful from here."
"The drive to Cambridge is about the same," I said. "Maybe better in traffic."
"You were welcome to stay," she said. "We could have made it work."
"Why mess with success?" I said. I drank a little beer.
Susan smiled. We ate for a bit, listening to Sarah and the rain. The lamps positioned around the open space of the condo blossomed with soft gold light. Rain sluiced down the windows, pricks of blue and yellow lights from atop moored ships.
"Why do you think Locke came to you?"
"Besides me being tough, resourceful, and smart as a border collie?"
"Yes," Susan said. "Besides that."
"He said he was concerned the museum might bring someone from outside Boston," I said. "He told me he's more sure than ever that whoever stole those paintings has roots here."
Susan nodded. She forked a bit of chicken with some kale. Her face blossomed with a smile as she lifted a glass to her lips. "And what made you accept?"
"I haven't accepted yet."
"Oh, you will."
I shook my head. I tried the chicken, thinking that perhaps the kale would have worked a little better with some lemon. When in doubt, always add a little lemon.
"How could you pass up working on the mystery of all mysteries?" Susan said.
"There's a five-million-dollar reward."
"Probably for those in possession of the paintings," she said. "Not the Winthrop's hired hand."
"A shamus can dream."
Susan nodded. I slipped some bacon pieces under the table for Pearl. They disappeared within seconds. I raised my hand aboveboard to a disapproving look from Susan.
"And for my next miracle," I said.
"Do you think you can restrain yourself?"
"From feeding Pearl?"
"From smarting off to Topper Whosis, a board surely made of crotchety old flakes, and Large Marj long enough to get those paintings back."
"As I know little to nothing about what I'm stepping into," I said, "I'll have to get back to you on that."
"Just who do you know in the art world?"
"I know a guy at South Station who sells prints of dogs playing poker," I said.
"What about Gino Fish?"
"A man of fine taste," I said. "But in case you haven't heard, he's dead."
"I know," she said. "But this painting disappeared twenty years ago. Right? Wasn't Vinnie working with him back then?"
"Indeed he was."
"Vinnie and I haven't been on the best of terms as of late."
"Can't you just hug it out," she said. "Or whatever you mascopaths do."
"It's my own term for serially overly macho psyches. Overly masculine personalities."
"Would you like me to perform one-armed push-ups before dessert?"
Susan tapped at her cheek. "While you perform, may I use your back as an ottoman?"
I thought about it for a moment and then dropped to my knees. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
the winthrop museum looked like a big wedge of Spanish wedding cake, lots of tan stucco with a barrel-tile roof and windows protected with intricate wrought-iron cages. A woman named Constance Winthrop had the place built sometime in the early part of the last century. She had so much money, she proclaimed she wanted the Alhambra brought to the Fens. Nearly a hundred years later, I walked up the marble steps before opening hours. A guard led me through an indoor courtyard with a bubbling fountain and lots of statuary. I felt a bit like Ferdinand the Bull being ushered into the ring.
Marjorie Phillips introduced herself from the head of a long oval table. Even though she didn't stand, I could tell she was a sturdy woman. She had a thick, jowly face and a Buster Brown haircut. A reddish and green silk scarf wrapped what I imagined to be a neck thicker than an NFL linebacker's.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Did not like this story it was not Credible and the ending was very disappointing.
4/5 because no Hawk. Great quick read.
Ace truly has stepped into the shoes of the old master. Well done
Captures the Spenser story. It was fun to read.
The continuation of the Jesse Stone novels stumbled at the beginning; not so with Spenser. Ace Atkins has mastered the character and he and the stories live on. Old Black Magic had me smiling and laughing out loud. While I love the darker Spenser novels, every now and then having Spenser’s journey take a more light hearted path is a nice change. If that’s what you’re looking for, Old Black Magic is just the ticket!
Spencer is approached by a dying gentleman, Mr. Locke who is also a Private Investigator who was hired twenty years ago by The Winthrop museum to recover three pieces of art that seem to have vanished off the face of the earth. This heist wasn’t a professional hit by any means, it was sloppy and one of the pieces were torn. Mr. Locke has been all over the world and back looking for these three pieces, one is a small Picasso, Goya but the prize is an El Greco, “The Gentleman in Black”. The El Greco had a bit of a shady history behind it as well, but it was Winthrop’s main concern. Mr. Locke’s dying wish is that these pieces would be recovered to the museum before he passes on. Spencer agrees to meet with the board of Winthrop, it seems they are getting a lot of activity regarding these pieces since the statute of limitations has run out on the theft itself, plus there is still is a hefty award awaiting anyone who recovers these pieces Spencer, of course, clashes with the board immediately, they are a snobby lot, but he does help them up to a point, but there is only so much pretentiousness he’ll take. They are not too impressed with him either, but he’s used to being underestimated. After one failed attempt, where he takes all the blame and deserves none, he’s fired off the case. This is where the fun begins, he’s flying solo on this caper no Hawk or Z for back up, but he can always count on Vinnie Morris. I love what Ace Atkins has done with this series, he’s done a great job and they are still a pleasure to read. Spencer hasn’t lost his acerbic wit and he’s still a force to reckoned with. I look forward to reading the next book in this series. I would like to thank the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with a copy in exchange for my honest opinion expressed above.
Long drawn out. More geography lesson than action. Sorry Ace.
Too many characters, confusing, and the bottom line, you really don't care if Spencer finds the painting or not.
I loved it. I felt like Robert Parker himself wrote it.
I won't say I liked the plot in this book as well as others I've read, but my husband and I - both long-time fans of the "Spenser" series - agree that the Boston private eye's "voice" here is more true to that of original series author, the late Robert B. Parker. In 2011, Parker's estate chose Ace Atkins to carry on the legacy, and he's written - if my research is correct - six "Spenser" books prior to this one (all of which we've read and enjoyed). Twenty years after an extremely valuable El Greco painting was stolen from a ritzy Boston art museum, it's whereabouts remain unknown. One of Spenser's old friends who's spent years trying to solve the case is dying, and he doesn't want to exit this world amid unfinished business. So, he asks Spenser to take on the case and insists that the museum director and chief board member go along with the arrangement. Uppity creatures that they are, they hold their noses and agree - or so it appears. Sweetening the pot is the chance at a $5 million reward, and the lengths to which some characters will go to get a piece of that action isn't surprising. The trail leads to some very shady characters, several with mob connections and not-so-pleasant past encounters with Spenser, who gets capable assistance from Vinnie Morris - a criminal Spenser has come to (for the most part) trust. Conspicuous in his absence, though, is Spenser's long-time pal and back-up guy, Hawk, who's said to be somewhere in South America cavorting with a woman (despite the fact that the official book description inexplicably claims Spenser gets help from both Vinnie and Hawk). Since Hawk's presence has been rather limited in the last couple of books in the Atkins series, I can't help but suspect that he's being phased out. Frankly, IMHO, Hawk hasn't been the same since his words were crafted by his creator; still, I love the guy and hope he's just on hiatus. Most of the book is just Spenser doing what he does best; following leads, chowing down (sometimes with his girlfriend, Susan Silverman), interjecting amusing one-liners and trying his best not to get killed. The investigation puts him in contact with old police colleagues and members of the aforementioned mob, most of whom would never get invited to Spenser's wedding (should he and Susan ever decide to tie the knot, which is unlikely). Along the way, the list of characters with names ending in "i" or "o" grew too long for me to keep them straight, but in the end, Spenser prevails as usual (and with a little twist, yet). Bottom line? A quick and easy read and another solid entry in an excellent series.
4.5 Stars Three precious works of art were stolen from the Winthrop Museum in Boston and never recovered. It's now 20 years later and the statute of limitations is up. Now, someone wants to sell these works of art. Who has them and what's the mystery behind all of this? I loved this book. I never read Robert Parker before (I know, my loss), however, this is the second book using his PI Spenser character written by Ace Atkins. I love the nostalgia of these books seeming like an old time PI noir. There was so much nostalgia written in, such as, "Jonathan Winters doing Maude Frickert". I remember the character but not the name. So, a little bit more trivia to add to this brain of mine. HA!! The strange adages throughout were hilarious. "My new coffeemaker spit out the coffee faster than Usain Bolt in the hundred meter". These were used over and over again and truly added to my reading enjoyment while giving a sense of humor to the book. Spenser is racing all over the place to try to find these works of art, behind him a trail of death is left, but not by Spenser. Someone is out to kill anyone with any knowledge of these paintings. And Spenser is under a deadline due to the museum hiring some British PI who was certainly most annoying. His biggest part in the finding of anything was following Spenser. (rolling of eyes). Ha!! An excellent read that I just sped through and enjoyed every minute. Huge thanks to Penguin Group Putnam and Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.
From the publisher: Iconic, tough-but-tender Boston PI Spenser delves into the black market art scene to investigate a decades-long unsolved crime of dangerous proportions. The heist was legendary, still talked about twenty years after the priceless paintings disappeared from one of Boston’s premier art museums. Most thought the art was lost forever, buried deep, sold off overseas, or, worse, destroyed as incriminating evidence. But when the museum begins receiving detailed letters about the theft from someone claiming to have knowledge of the whereabouts of the paintings, the board enlists Spenser’s help to navigate the delicate situation. Their particular hope is to regain the most valuable piece stolen, The Gentleman in Black, a renowned painting by a Spanish master and the former jewel of the collection. Soon the cold art case thrusts Spenser into the shady world of black market art dealers, aged Mafia bosses, and old vendettas. A five-million-dollar-reward sets Spenser and pal Vinnie Morris onto a trail of hidden secrets, jailhouse confessions, murder, and double-crosses. For some reason I had allowed myself to fall behind in reading the “new” books in this wonderful series, just as wonderful when authored by Ace Atkins, of which this is the newest. The preceding entry in the series was “Little White Lies,” which I finally caught up to in the last few weeks. With apologies for redundancies, as I said in my review of that book, “the author has captured many of the expected patterns of Robert B. Parker’s writing. But Mr. Atkins, besides giving us a very absorbing tale, has retained some of the most typical Parker patterns, e.g., nearly every character’s choice of clothing and headgear is noted, particularly caps declaring the owner’s love for a particular local sports team, whether Braves or Red Sox. (In fact, very near the end of the book we find Spenser escaping a close call and thinking “I’d hoped these guys didn’t plan ambushes like Branch Rickey planned ballgames.”) One character appears dressed in a “light blue guayabera, his white hair loose and scattered as always, with some black reading glasses down on his nose.’ There is also a lot about food. When he prepares a Cobb salad for himself and Susan, and she hands him a vodka martini, he thinks “You couldn’t eat a Cobb salad without [it]. It was a law in California.” Then there are the nicknames, e.g., “Fat Freddy,” “Famous Ray.” The terrific plotting and action are always present, as Spenser goes about solving “the biggest theft in Boston history,” a painting worth sixty or seventy million. Spenser’s love of jazz is always present, from Coltrane playing from speakers in a restaurant, to the final scene where Tony Bennett “reached for the tree of life and picked him a plum,” and Spenser saying “The Best Is Yet to Come,” to which Vinnie replies “You better believe it.” I loved the author’s tip of the hat to another terrific mystery writer, Hank Philippi Ryan, reporting on Boston’s Channel 7 with a live shot from a crime scene. Set against the high-society art scene and the low-life back alleys of Boston, this is classic Spenser doing what he does best. As was “Little White Lies,” “Old Black Magic” is also highly recommended.
I’ve been a Spenser fan for many years. I enjoy his quick witted sarcasm, his cooking, choices of music and drinks and his true loyal nature. He takes on cases that matter to him sometimes just for the fact that he doesn’t like to see an underdog taken advantage of. His personal relationship with the lady in his life, Susan has always been entertaining to me as he is fiercely loyal to her and their dog Pearl, and he seems satisfied with their close relationship, sans marriage. In this latest effort Susan and Pearl are mentioned a couple of times but mostly this is just Spenser trying to solve an old mystery of some very valuable paintings stolen many years prior, and his efforts in recovering them for the museum from where they were stolen. Actually, it got a bit boring for me and I found myself skimming through several parts. In my opinion this novel is missing most of those factors that have kept me interested through the years. Being written now by Ace Atkins, who has in fact still captured the character of Spenser quite well in previous novels, somehow this one lacked what it takes to draw me in and keep me interested or even caring about whether or not he accomplished his goal. These Spenser novels are all beginning to sound a lot alike. He enlists aid from the same thugs with the same bad language. I didn’t mind it much before but I think it may be time for this reader to part ways with Spenser, although I probably won't, as I have enjoyed the series so much. My thanks to the publisher and to NetGalley for my complimentary e-copy of this ARC for my honest and unbiased review. This novel will be released today May 01, 2018.