Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn by Ace Atkins is the newest Spenser novel, where Boston PI Spenser faces a hot case and a personal crisis (Available today!).
An assessment of a new Spenser novel requires this reviewer to reveal a bit of my adoration for series creator, Robert B. Parker, and why I was initially hesitant to read the continuations by Ace Atkins. Makes this post four years overdue, since Mr. Parker died in January 2010 and Ace Atkins took over two years later with Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby—a Spenser book a year under the Atkins diet has followed ever since.
Flashback to the mid-80s as my teen palate began to develop a taste for more sophisticated plots, my love for reading The Hardy Boys naturally led to “grownup” detective novels, and I picked up Valediction (1984). Parker’s Spenser was a revelation—tough-guy gourmet, poet-quoting sleuth, moralizing pugilist—that opened the door to Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, and Ross Macdonald. Around the same time, the Robert Urich Spenser: For Hire (1985-1988) television show hit the airwaves fueling the fandom.
From then until Parker’s passing, I faithfully bought every new Spenser novel, even when the writing had started to wear awkwardly thin (I started counting pages that were nothing but dialogue ending in either “she said,” “he said,” or “I said”). I owed Parker too great a debt to stop at that point, and occasionally, greatness shined through. The only book I didn't read was Sixkill (2011), the final one, because in a naive way, if I didn't read it, it wasn't the end, right? Maybe sometime over a Guinness, I'll read Sixkill. (Note: Silent Night (2013), an unfinished manuscript was completed by Helen Brann.)
When Mr. Atkins took over, I thought it was a mistake. I had watched other favorite series of mine get watered down—debasing iconic legends like James Bond, Jason Bourne, and even Sherlock Holmes. Adding an extra hesitation to my concerns, a short time after his death, widow Joan Parker allegedly told the Globe that her husband would have wanted the series to continue, admitting “Spenser was a cash cow.” Reading that calculating appraisal, well, I figured it was time to get off the Spenser train—it had been a damn good run, but enough was enough.
Almost a decade since I last read the Boston sleuth, I was asked to take a look at the latest Spenser called Slow Burn. Have to admit, I was more than a little interested in seeing how old Spenser—with an S like the poet—was faring. All qualms were laid quickly to rest in the early chapters, as Mr. Atkins deftly handled the Spenser and companion Susan Silverman repartee that is a cornerstone of the series dating back to the 1970s. Take a listen:
“You can have me mounted and stuffed,” I said. “Just like Roy did for Dale.”
“Roy stuffed Trigger,” she said. “Not Dale.”
“Maybe I'll just find a younger man,” Susan said. “Someone with less miles on him.”
“But could he sing 'Moody's Mood for Love' in Spanish?”
I took a sip of beer and took a deep breath, just as the oysters and Susan's bluefish arrived.
“Timing is everything,” she said.
THAT’S the couple who’ve been keeping the fires stoked since God Save the Child (1974), then suffering a breakup, only to rekindle their love in 1985’s A Catskill Eagle. Though, later in Slow Burn, when Susan tosses her T-shirt into Spenser's face with a come hither “race you upstairs” for some afternoon lovemaking—uh—my first shameful ageist vibe was, “How old are Spenser and Susan anyway?
He was a Korean Vet in the earlier books placing him at the octogenarian crossing. Unless I missed it, no age is given, so I'm assuming Spenser and friends have entered that mysterious frozen realm in literature whereby the world around them accelerates, but, like Lestat, they don't. (Though Pearl the Wonder Dog is mentioned getting along in years, and when Spenser talks to a priest about his last confession, he smugly notes, ”Father, I don't believe you'd even been born.”)
Plot is true blue Parker: Firefighter Captain Jack McGee of Boston's North End hires Spenser to look into a suspicious fire that claimed the lives of three firefighters. Witnesses include another firefighter—who is annoyed by Spenser’s snooping feeling it was an unfortunate accident and not arson—and a shadow on a camera feed disappearing shortly after flames consumed the church.
Typical private eye by the numbers as Spenser traverses the detective handbook searching for answers. That’s not a slight but an appreciation of the comfortability at which Atkins writes, what fans expect, and delivering it in a way that makes it feel contemporary, fresh.
A Spenser investigation, as customary, runs the gamut of pissing off the elite of Boston, then descending to the criminal underbelly, grating many, while still retaining their respect for his well-known code of ethics. Along for the ride is Spenser's other long term friendship with gun for hire, Hawk. Like the characterization of Susan, Atkins has done his homework well, and the dangerous edge of Ceremony (1982)-era Hawk is alive and well. I felt Hawk had become a bit of a caricature toward the end of Parker’s run. (I know, I know—enough pecking at a great man’s statue.)
Another trademark is the fisticuffs. Spenser is an amateur boxer and does what boxers do best though, in perhaps another ode to age, shows a hero with feet of clay.
I stepped forward, throwing a right, and he ducked it. He came up with a right and connected. I saw stars popping and stepped back. My breathing was very good. My newly reconstructed knee worked great. He was no more to me than just a thick heavy bag. I stepped in with a combination on his body. My blows were fast and hard but seemed to show no effect on him. He countered with a barrage that brought tears to my eyes.
Suggestions for Putnam from the cheap seats that are sure to be ignored: after the gigantic “Robert B. Parker's” put in “Spenser” instead of the book title…it’s Parker’s Spenser, and Ace Atkins’ novel. If what I assume is a concern of series recognizably, I submit that Spenser is as big as Robert B. Parker and can speak for himself.
And, in the you-can’t-make-everyone-happy minutia category: please change the font that makes the capital letter Q have a tail longer than a sauropod…it’s extremely distracting every time Quirk appears on the scene.
After reading nearly forty Robert B. Parker Spenser novels, I’m not so sure how fast I’ll be to leap at new entries, but no doubt will return from time to time. Regardless, it’s good to know my old friend, and yours, is in Mr. Atkins capable hands.
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David Cranmer aka Edward A. Grainger is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP books and writer of the forthcoming The Drifter Detective #7: Torn and Frayed. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.