Published on: May 6, 2016
Spenser is back this week in "Slow Burn," the 45th novel featuring the intrepid Boston private detective created by the late Robert B. Parker. Since Parker's death in January 2010, Ace Atkins - who, in addition to being an avowed Spenser fan, is an accomplished novelist with several series to his credit - has been writing the Spenser series, with both critical and popular success.
"Slow Burn," Atkins' fifth, is a worth addition to the Spenser canon, proving yet again that he has been an inspired choice to succeed Parker. What Atkins does is not so much an imitation of Parker as an evocation - he captures the Boston atmospherics and uses the sardonic, hard-boiled, first-person narrative to perfection.
In "Slow Burn," Spenser is asked to look into a fire that killed several of the city's firefighters; one of the survivors suspects arson, but the authorities aren't listening, so he asks Spenser to investigate ... and, inevitably, the trail leads to a series of fires that are ravaging the city. (In writing about the fires, Atkins demonstrates a facility with research that reflects his journalistic beginnings.) As usual, Spenser has to deal with his share of Beantown baddies, with names like Jackie DeMarco and Killer Kowalski, sometimes with wry wit and sometimes with an uppercut; he also has, as backup, the enigmatic Hawk and native American Zebulon Sixkill. And moral support from his longtime love, Susan Silverman, who Atkins makes sure is nurturing without being nauseating (something that Parker wrestled with, sometimes unsuccessfully).
There are a number of things I continue to really like about Atkins' Spenser novels. One is that he is acknowledging the passage of time and the history of the characters, at least as much as he can within the framework of a series in which the protagonist will always be in his fifties. At one point in the book, Spenser and Susan take a side trip to Cape Cod, where they enjoy a sentimental weekend at a Hyannis hotel where they stayed in "Promised Land," the fourth Spenser novel; they mention having stayed there 20 years earlier, though, in fact, "Promised Land" was published in 1976 - a whopping 40 years ago
. (It simply wouldn't do for Spenser and Susan to be well into their seventies...)
At the same time, Atkins allows for life to happen - Pearl, their dog, is aging (dog years appear to be the polar opposite of Spenser years), and the formerly troubled Sixkill has matured to the point where he's ready to leave Boston and move to Los Angeles. (I suspect this means there is an LA-based Spenser book on the horizon.) There are mentions of old foes - Gino Fish, Joe Broz, Tony Marcus - that suggest Spenser has managed to outlive them all, which also allows for the introduction of new and dangerous antagonists. There is even change in the police department, with Martin Quirk having been promoted and replaced by a female detective who may prove to be a worthy adversary.
(By the way, fans of the TV series "Spenser: For Hire" may see a reference in "Slow Burn" they'll recognize, if they pay attention. Extra credit - and a signed copy of "The Big Picture," to the first person who sends me an email telling me what it is.)
I do have one small problem with "Slow Burn," I must admit. There is an old dramatist's rule - invented, I think, by Anton Chekhov - that if you introduce a gun at the beginning of a story, you'd better make sure it goes off by the end of the story. Otherwise, it shouldn't be there. In "Slow Burn," there is the introduction of a character with whom one might expect Spenser to have an interaction before the end of the book ... but it doesn't happen. (I anticipated something along the lines of how Spenser and Hawk deal with Zachary at the end of "The Judas Goat.") I'm thinking that Atkins is simply setting up a conflict that will pay off in a future novel ... so I've decided to take this as a positive, since it indicates there will be future novels.
In short, this is all good stuff, as Atkins manages to keep the flames of an old hero alive while injecting the stories with new energy and insights. "Slow Burn" amply demonstrates that Spenser - first introduced in "The Godwulf Manuscript" back in 1973 - shows no signs of burning out.
As tired as I am of comic movies, it didn't stop me last night from going with my son to see Captain America: Civil War
- in IMAX 3-D, no less. I'm happy to report that within the limits of the genre, it is a terrific piece of work - lively and kinetic, well-acted, and written in such a way that it manages to have some serious issues on its mind without being grim and heavy-minded in the manner of the recent Batman v. Superman
In some ways, the underlying theme of Captain America: Civil War
is similar to that of B v. A
- it is about what happens when gifted people of different mindsets clash about personal responsibility and allegiances. In Captain America
, there is a move to create a registry of super heroes that will make them report to the United Nations. Some, like Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) think this is necessary because of the havoc that has been wrought in the past, even as these superheroes have saved the world; but Captain America (Chris Evans) feels he needs to be independent in order to be effective.
While there certainly political undertones to the plot, there is lots of action, plenty of fights, some witty dialogue, and even a few plot twists. (And a welcome appearance by Tom Holland as the new Spider-Man ... who is terrific.) Captain America: Civil War
is what it is, but that's not at all bad ... a comic book movie with heart and even intelligence. It's going to make a fortune, and put Batman v. Superman
to shame critically and financially.
As befits any week in which I read a new Spenser novel, I tried a new beer this week - Driftwood Ale from the Montauk Brewing Company, a copper colored and refreshing beer that I think is going to go into the rotation.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.