Published on: May 9, 2014
For decades, one of the best moments of any year was when the newest Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker would arrive at my door. It was an annual event, and I couldn't wait to crack open a beer, settle into a chair and begin to read. Inevitably, the first chapter would begin with a client walking into Spenser's office, or Spenser going to visit a prospective client … and from there, we were off … into what I always knew would be a solid, entertaining novel filled with witticisms, descriptions of good food and drink, colorful Boston characters and a sardonic world view that I found in synch with my own.
Parker, of course, died in 2010. But his Spenser novels have remained robust and alive, thanks to the work of Ace Atkins, a southern novelist who is just out with his third Spenser novel, somewhat cumbersomely entitled "Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot."
But I'll get to the book in a minute…
Last night, I had the chance to grab a beer with Atkins during the NYC piece of the book tour in which he's currently engaged. He's promoting not just "Cheap Shot," but also "The Forsaken," which is the fourth novel in another series he's writing, featuring a former Army Ranger turned Mississippi sheriff named Quinn Colson. (It'll be out in late July).
It's the second time I've had the opportunity to spend time with Atkins, and he's an immensely likable guy - it is just great fun to have a beer and talk about food and restaurants and old movies, in part because those are just some of the subjects that animate his writing and in part because it's just cool to talk about that stuff with someone so accomplished.
But the thing that I took from this conversation was the level to which Atkins brings journalistic discipline to his novelistic work. He thinks he shares that with Parker, who, he notes, could be "flippant" about his writing, making it look effortless, but who in fact was a very hard worker (5-10 pages a day, five days a week). "My process," he says," is that I keep regular office hours, I have an office in town, and I keep it professional - I get there between 9 and 9:30 every morning, I get my coffee, and I work until 4:30, with a break for lunch. I do that six days a week, and the office building is filled with lawyers, which actually makes it easier."
Atkins' journalistic sensibility - he started his writing career as a newspaper reporter - means that in placing "Cheap Shot" against an NFL background, he was careful to sprinkle in doses of reality - owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady all are referenced, though they're not characters in the book. (That stands in contrast to "Mortal Stakes," the Parker book that involved the Boston Red Sox, in which there were no actual players or coaches mentioned.) "If those people were not in place," Atkins says, "then it would not have seemed like the Patriots."
And, in "Cheap Shot," Atkins subtlety works in suggestions that Spenser - who has seemed permanently in his fifties for several decades - may be aging. He slips on a pair of glasses at one point (the last time I can remember him doing so was in "The Widening Gyre"), and even gets a little out of breath running … he's human, he's mortal, and that only makes him more endearing. "I had to fight a little bit for that stuff," Atkins says, "but I can never imagine Spenser being a young guy. For me, he's in his mid-to-late fifties."
Atkins says that he actually misses journalism, and plans to do the occasional magazine investigative piece, just to keep those skills sharp and scratch that itch. But he's also firmly dedicated to the Spenser oeuvre - he's under contract to write two more novels for the series, and seems to hope that, at age 43, he's got plenty more Spenser and Colson novels to write.
I hope so, too.
Now, about "Cheap Shot"…
I think it is terrific. The client is Kinjo Heywood, a star Patriots linebacker who finds himself stalked by persons unknown, for reasons unknown, and then has his young son kidnapped. Spenser's job is clear - find the kid - but as always, the task is never all that simple. And thank goodness, because Atkins takes us through a colorful array of characters and neighborhoods, as Spenser tries to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Many of the bad guys - and good guys - are not quite what they seem, and it falls to Spenser to figure things out.
This is, by the way, one of the places where Atkins' journalistic sensibilities serve the character and series well. The act of tracking down a story has some similarities to solving a mystery, and he knows not just how to do it, but how to make it a fun ride.
Spenser is, of course, not alone for the ride. He's aided by the implacable Hawk, the novice Zebulon Sixkill, and, of course, his longtime love, Susan Silverman. It all works.
I would describe "Cheap Shot" as being similar to a favorite comfort food, like meat loaf … but meat loaf that, while made using a proven and favorite recipe, also has had some extra spice added, so it tastes unique and has some kick to it.
If you are an Atkins fan, or a Spenser fan, read "Cheap Shot." And if somehow you are not familiar with the genre, pick up or download a copy of the book, find a favorite chair, pour yourself a craft beer, settle in, and enjoy.
Some other quick OffBeat
• I love the new John Oliver HBO series, "Last Week Tonight," which has as part of its pedigree Oliver's work on "The Daily Show." Because Oliver's new show has a once-a-week schedule rather than a four-times-a-week schedule, he and his staff are able to spend a little more time crafting their stories and jokes … and, in fact, the extra times also allows their outrage to simmer a little longer and on a slightly higher temperature. Hence, what I think were brilliant pieces the first two weeks on democratic elections in India and the state of capital punishment in America. It is great stuff, and, i think, quickly will become Sunday night appointment television.
• "24" is back, and former counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) hasn't lost a step since we last saw him become a fugitive four years ago. He's still on the run, and in London, where he's learned of a plot to assassinate the visiting US president (William Devane). There are some familiar faces and plenty of new ones, but after just two hours, it is clear that the producers are not trying to reinvent a formula that worked for a long time. And it still does.
• "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" is just more of what most comic book movies offer - ramped up explosions, more broadly drawn villains, and an overlong narrative that seems designed to be more like a great amusement park ride than a coherent story. The one thing this one has going for it is an almost magical romantic chemistry between the two leads - Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker and the luminous Emma Stone and Gwen Stacy. It was okay, but just okay … and I just wish they'd figure out how to balance spectacle with story.
• I was surprised this week to read in USA Today
that Blazing Saddles
is 40 years old this year … and having just seen it recently, I am here to tell you that it is a movie that is every bit as funny now as it was when I first saw it. Most writers and directors would be thrilled to have one classic movie on their resume, and Mel Brooks has three - Blazing Saddles
, The Producers
, and, of course Young Frankenstein
. Brooks is 87, but still very funny … check him out with Carl Reiner on Jerry Seinfeld's "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" by clicking here
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.