Many, many authors released new novels in May, one of the busiest months for publishing. Not many writers released two books within weeks of each other — but Ace Atkins did.
Atkins, who was formerly a reporter for the Times and the Tampa Tribune, has published an even dozen novels, counting these two. A few years back, after several books of historical crime fiction, he was working on a new series about Quinn Colson, an Iraq war veteran who returned to his hometown of Jericho, Miss., and became sheriff. Then Atkins was asked to try out for an unusual gig: continuing the beloved and bestselling Spenser series written by Robert B. Parker, who died in 2010.
Atkins, a longtime Parker fan who cites the writer as an inspiration for and influence on his own career, got the job — but he didn't want to set aside the Colson series. So last month he published his second Spenser book, Robert B. Parker's Wonderland, and his third on Colson, The Broken Places.
In terms of setting and style, the books are very different. Spenser is a man of the city, specifically Boston, a tough-guy private investigator with a sophisticated palate and a diverse circle of friends and enemies. In the books about him, Parker developed a streamlined style — in his last few books it was almost telegraphic — and emphasized Spenser's wise-guy wit, all of which Atkins has continued in the books he has written for the series.
Colson is a son of the northern Mississippi hill country, and Jericho is a hardscrabble, isolated town where any stranger is suspect. The style of the books, Atkins told me in an interview before the first one, The Ranger, was published in 2011, is meant to evoke both Raymond Chandler (also one of Parker's idols) and William Faulkner. The Colson books have a more somber tone and descriptive style, sometimes lushly so, along with propulsive storytelling.
But the two series have some common aspects, notably their heroes. Although they're several generations apart, Spenser and Colson are both seared and seasoned by war, smart and independent; each man lives by his own code of honor and struggles to keep his propensity for violence under control, using it only when necessary. (And they're both devoted to their dogs.) They're a type of classic American hero that ranges from the gunslinger to the detective, the lone man with a gun trying to do the right thing — once he figures out what it is.
Wonderland focuses on a kind of generational relationship involving Spenser and two other men: his longtime friend, mentor and boxing coach Henry Cimoli, and his young protege Z, who was introduced in Sixkill, the last novel Parker completed before his death. Just as Henry taught Spenser far more than how to throw a right hook, Spenser is trying to teach Z how to turn his own rage to good use.
Spenser and Z come to Henry's aid when he's pressured by a shady developer who wants to buy the condo on Revere Beach where the old man had hoped to live out his life. It's a prime location for casino development, and the kind of people who develop casinos are not always subtle in their methods of persuasion.
Spenser finds himself dealing not just with hired thugs but with two beautiful, charismatic, ruthless women: a casino mogul's brassy wife and the same man's former (maybe) colleague and lover.
Atkins did an excellent job of capturing Spenser in his first novel about him, Lullaby, and I think Wonderland is even better. I had only one disappointment: Susan Silverman, Spenser's inamorata, she of the "smile that could disarm North Korea," makes only a brief appearance, and Hawk, his comrade in arms, is out of town for the duration. Spenser is at his best interacting with those two, and I hope they'll be back in force next time.
In The Broken Places, Colson also finds himself dealing with the problems of people closest to him: "I say it's hell being sheriff in the same town as your family." His wayward sister, Caddy (whom Quinn rescued from drug addiction and prostitution), is in love with Jamey Dixon, an ex-con who found Jesus during a stint at Mississippi's notorious Parchman Farm prison.
Dixon also managed to get himself pardoned for his crime — the gruesome murder of his girlfriend, Adelaide Bundren. (If you're a Faulkner fan, these names are ringing your bells.) Dixon claims, and Caddy believes, he was framed. But Quinn is skeptical, even though Dixon has thrown himself into creating a church retreat near Jericho. And Addy's sister, Ophelia, the town's undertaker, is obsessed with putting Dixon back in jail.
The book opens with a wild escape from Parchman Farm — not by Dixon but by two desperate men who will come looking for him. That will mean much more bad news for Quinn, and, as if human savagery weren't enough to deal with, the weather blowing in from Texas is the kind that brings tornadoes.
Quinn faced great danger and treachery in the previous books, but The Broken Places brings his greatest challenges yet, in a plot that keeps surprising to the end.
Here's hoping Atkins keeps both Spenser and Colson on the case for a long time to come.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.