Sunday, May 24, 2015

"What We Got Here Is Failure To Communicate....."

Robert B. Parker's Kickback
by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam's Sons

4 out of 5 bottles of Sam Adams.

“On the first day of February, the coldest day of the year so far, I took it as a very good omen that a woman I’d never met brought me a sandwich.”

This may be the smartest client that Spenser has ever had because one sure way to motivate the private detective is to offer him food.  It also helps if you’re hiring him to help an innocent person who got royally screwed over by powerful people because Spenser enjoys sinking his teeth into a case like that almost as much as biting into a free sandwich.

In a rundown old mill town a judge has sentenced a young man to nine months in a juvenile detention facility for making fun of a school official on Twitter.  (And if making fun of people on Twitter is a jailable offense then I’m in a lot of trouble because my mocking of former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli would probably have been enough to get me the death penalty.)  

Spenser investigates and finds a pattern of the judge throwing every kid he can into jail for minor infractions, and some more digging reveals ties between the judge and the private company getting paid by the government to run the prison as well as a dangerous mobster. Spenser soon finds himself threatened by both the local cops and thugs.  

This is the fourth Spenser novel that Ace Atkins has done after being hired by the estate of Robert B. Parker to carry on the series, and he’s done an exceptional job of writing these in a way that feels like his own style while still being true to the character.  This one has scenes and dialogue that really feel reminiscent of the early Spenser, and I especially like how Hawk has regained some of the rougher edges he used to have that had gotten sanded off in the later RBP books.

One of the more interesting changes is that while the Atkins books are still self-contained stories that he’s been leaving plot threads hanging to be addressed later, and this gives the series more of a sense of on-going serialized continuity than it typically had before.  Spenser still exists in a kind of ageless limbo, but there’s been changes to his world since Atkins took over that are adding layers to the stories.  

So we’ve got all those elements along with the kind of plot in which Spenser can really shine as he takes on corrupt officials and criminals with his usual mix of tough guy stubbornness and smart ass comments. That makes for a great read that any fan of the private eye genre should enjoy.

Also reviewed at Goodreads.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

On the Road Again

Gathering Prey
by John Sandford
G.P. Putnam's Son

4 out of 5 bottles of Faygo

Lucas Davenport relentlessly tracks down a murderous gang of hippies?!?  It’s not even my birthday!

Davenport’s adopted daughter Letty befriends a young woman, Skye, who is part of a subculture called Travelers  who wander around the country living like hoboes.  After her  friend is murdered Skye contacts Letty for help and tells her that the people responsible are a pack of jackals led by a guy named Pilate.  Skye is convinced that Pilate’s gang roams around in an RV torturing and killing people.

Letty gets Lucas involved, and his initial skepticism fades as they find evidence that indicates that Pilate and his people have left a trail of bodies in their wake.  Davenport starts tracking them across the upper Midwest through small towns and the weirdness of Juggalo gatherings.  (You can do a Google image search if you want to an idea of what that looks like, but don‘t say I didn't warn you.) Things get messy as usually happens when Lucas starts trying to run down killers, and he also has to deal with a nagging middle manager who wants to know why he’s wasting the taxpayer money trying to stop murderers who aren’t killing anyone in their state?

OK, so I guess they’re not technically hippies although there is a certain Charles Manson family type vibe going on here.  I still like to think of them as murderous hippies although even Manson would probably hesitate to sign up with this crew considering how crazily blood thirsty they are.

While most Prey novels generally feature Lucas trying to figure out who the bad guy is for at least part of the book, this plays out a little differently in that Lucas almost immediately knows who he’s looking for and what they've done.  The challenge here is in trying to find a group of people living off the grid as they roam around.  Things soon escalate and since the majority of the book is a straight up manhunt that allows Sandford to play to his strength of building the sense of momentum and tension that make his books such page turners.

The one slightly off-key note in this is Letty.  Sandford has made her an increasing part of the story in some of the recent novels, and she does make for a great smart-ass foil for Lucas.  However, it seems like she’s being set up to star in her own series at some point soon, and sometimes the ways she’s inserted into the plot feel forced.  She makes for a fun sidekick generally, but it’s always more fun to read about Batman than Robin. So it was a bit of relief when she fades into the background when the story really gets rolling, and Lucas becomes the center of the book’s attention.

There’s also a sense of Lucas getting fed up with his position in a government agency.  While he’s always had a natural feel for helping out his bosses with the media, Lucas has never had much patience with office politics or bureaucratic rules, and he’s seriously frustrated at the current American institutional mentality of being more concerned with the budget than in actually doing the job.  Throw in him dealing with turning 50, and Lucas is one grumpy individual at the start of this one.  All of this gives the book the feeling that it’s about to boil over, and that Davenport will have to consider making some changes in his life.

But whenever Lucas is in a funk, he can always count on the adrenaline rush of hunting bad guys to cheer him up, and he’s certainly one cheerful bastard by the end of this one.

Also posted at Goodreads.