Sunday, May 22, 2016

Slow Cooking With Spenser

Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn Robert B. Parker's Slow Burn by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Spenser tries to track down a serial arsonist. I sure hope he doesn’t get burned by the experience….

OK, I apologize for that one.

Three firefighters were killed in a blaze of undetermined origin, and a year later there are still no answers. That doesn’t sit well with a friend of Spenser’s who is a fireman that thinks the fire was arson and believes the authorities haven’t done enough to find whoever was responsible. Spenser starts nosing around and as usual manages to piss off some very dangerous people in the process.

I’ve noted in other reviews what a fantastic job that Ace Atkins has done in taking over the Spenser character following the death of Robert B. Parker, and this is another great continuation of that work. Once again Spenser is still the same guy that RBP created back in the ‘70s, and yet there’s an amazing freshness and energy for the forty-fourth book in a series.

What’s really interesting about this one is that Atkins is now introducing the very real possibility of change to the Spenserverse. RBP didn’t monkey with the successful formula he’d created after the first 20 or so books. He locked Spenser and the other characters into a kind of limbo where age became meaningless, and yet their past timeline didn’t change. RBP was so committed to keeping things the same that even when he’d occasionally acknowledge the passage of time by letting Spenser’s dog Pearl die of old age he still avoided any impact by just having him get another dog that looked exactly like her and naming her Pearl also.

Part of the appeal of a series is the familiarity so it’s understandable why RBP played it like that, but a lack of change also removes the possibility of growth to the characters as well as real consequences to their actions. Atkins started his time with the series with everyone in their same roles, but he’s been subtly laying the groundwork for change to occur. Now he’s starting to deliver on that with characters like Quirk and Vinnie getting new jobs that actually shift their dynamics a bit as well as adding a new female cop as a frenemy to Spenser. There’s also a couple of other real and permanent adjustments to Spenser’s world including one event that’s probably the biggest shake-up in thirty books.

All of these things have helped things feel less permanent in the series, and that helps add a sense of stakes to the proceedings. For example, when Spenser fights a large thug in one scene the outcome is very much in doubt, and making Spenser a little more fallible adds drama to the story. Overall, there’s a sense that Atkins has been quietly shaping Spenser to be a better fit for the 21st century rather than keeping him in an increasingly unrealistic stasis. As one character tells Spenser, “Those days are long over. Get with the fucking times or they’re gonna get with you.”

It’s the way that Atkins artfully balances the updating of the series while still knowing and respecting the core of what made it great that makes his version of Spenser such a treat to read.

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