Friday, May 9, 2014

Spenser Huddles Up

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot 
by Ace Atkins

4 out of 5 autographed footballs.

Considering the image conscious nature of the National Football League and the recent legal problems of a certain former member of the New England Patriots, I was more than a little shocked that Ace Atkins was able to use the actual team name as well as reference real people like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick for a story that involves a talented but trouble prone player. I would be willing to bet that more than a few lawyers from the NFL, the Patriots and the publisher got to bill some hours while they worked out some kind of arrangement.

Spenser goes to work for Kinjo Heywood, a star linebacker for the Pats. Kinjo has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, but he claims that men have been following and harassing him. Spenser thinks this may be linked to a night club shooting that Kinjo was investigated as being part of, but he was eventually cleared by the police. Things take a darker turn when Kinjo’s young son Akira is kidnapped and no ransom demand is immediately made.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating that Ace Atkins has turned out to be an excellent choice to carry on with the Spenser series after the death of Robert B. Parker. Atkins has brought a new energy and edginess to a series that had gotten pretty formulaic and stale, but it’s all been done in subtle ways that still respect the elements fans love about the character.

Spenser is still the same smart-mouthed tough guy with a code who can cook a delicious dinner from scratch while enjoying a couple of beers, but Atkins has modernized him a bit like when Spenser notes that an hour of computer research gets him more than running around all day used to. He even uses a GPS tracker to tail a suspect at one point although he still thinks of it as ‘cheating’. There are also some jokes about Star Wars, hobbits and Twitter that make Spenser seem more up-to-date than he had in RBP’s later books although he still retains his old school nature.

The supporting characters are also feeling more lively and engaged these days. Hawk is a bit rougher around the edges and a little meaner than he had been in the later books so that he feels like a different person, not just another version of Spenser. Z, the protégé Spenser took on in RBP’s final book, is fast turning into one of my favorite parts of the series, and even Susan Silverman is a lot more likeable now. She even gets one of the best ‘Hell, yeah!’ moments of the entire book.

Kinjo is also an interesting twist on the old RBP standard of having Spenser’s clients usually turn out to be terrible people It would have been really easy to play him as just the kind of stereotypical famous bad-boy athlete that is all over ESPN these days. However, Atkins (A former college player at Auburn who was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated.) does a great job of making Kinjo a real and sympathetic person, not just a cliché. He’s actually a decent guy who loves his son deeply and brings a level of dedication and talent to the game that Spenser can respect, but he’s still got some of the ego and flaws that come to many people who achieve fame and fortune.

Another factor I like about how Atkins is a bit different from RBP is that he’s leaving some loose ends and subplots unresolved which I assume will come into play later. These are still self-contained and satisfying stories but leaving a few things simmering on the back burner adds a little tension and anticipation as to what we might get in the future.

The idea of a writer being hired to continue the work of someone who passed away can be a touchy one, and in a lot of cases, probably not a good thing. However, with three remarkably solid and entertaining books now done by Ace Atkins, I’m certain that they couldn’t have found anyone better to carry on with the Spenser adventures, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

Also posted on Goodreads.

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