In Cheap Shot, the new novel about Robert B. Parker's beloved Boston detective, there's a point at which Spenser butts heads with someone who is "a distrustful, immoral creep. And I'd rather have my manly parts roasted over an open flame than work with him. But my job wasn't to vet the help. My job was to facilitate the return of an eight-year-old boy to his father. And if working with the devil himself would help, then I'd explore my options."
Spenser's fans will recognize there both the wisecracking voice and the devotion to duty at any cost that characterized him in more than three dozen novels by Parker. Both qualities are captured skillfully by author Ace Atkins in this book. Cheap Shot is Atkins' third Spenser novel; he was selected by Parker's family to continue the series after Parker died (at his writing desk) in 2010.
Atkins, who has written a dozen non-Spenser novels and has said he learned to write in part by reading Parker, hit the mark from his first Spenser (Lullaby), but Cheap Shot is the best yet, with a whip-crack plot, plenty of intriguing and despicable characters, and the lovable, relentless Spenser at its center.
It begins with the detective meeting with Kinjo Heywood, a New England Patriots linebacker, and his flashy agent at Kinjo's mansion. Kinjo, who played his way up from poverty, is, Spenser says, "much larger than me. I wasn't used to meeting anyone larger than me except for Hawk. ... Kinjo was made of muscle the way a jaguar is all muscle."
Kinjo can be intimidating off the field as well as on, but he has to be mindful of his public image. Hence the job offer for Spenser. Kinjo and his wife were followed home from a restaurant, and when he confronted the men following them, they wouldn't get out of their car. So Kinjo fired a gun. For an NFL star, it's easy enough to make a weapons violation go away, but the mystery men are still lurking, and Kinjo wants to find out who they are without getting himself on the front page for the wrong reasons.
There are plenty of directions for Spenser to look for answers — angry fans, celebrity stalkers, Kinjo's hostile ex-wife, Nicole, and his sketchy current one, Cristal. And then there was the nightclub shooting a few years back. Kinjo was questioned in the death of a young man but cleared; the victim's family then sued him, and they could be holding a grudge.
But everything escalates when Kinjo and Nicole's young son is kidnapped. Akira (named for Kurosawa, Kinjo's favorite movie director) is taken by armed men while Cristal is driving him to school. That answers the question of why the family was being followed. But as days and nights pass with no contact from the kidnappers, and investigators from various agencies spar over their turf and Spenser's, the tension ratchets tighter.
Atkins, formerly a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune, brings an insider's understanding to the book's football scenes. He played for Auburn University and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1993, celebrating after sacking Florida Gator Danny Wuerffel. Atkins' father, Bill, played pro football and was a college coach.
Atkins also has a deft way with Parker's style, its descriptions (a la Raymond Chandler) marked with striking similes, like the one of a creepy guy who makes porn films as smelling "like someone had knocked over a pina colada in a locker room," or the three young gangbangers who "were hardened men, but not as old as decent whiskey."
Cheap Shot also will satisfy fans of Spenser's longtime flame, psychologist Susan Silverman, and his two comrades in arms, the inimitable and enigmatic Hawk and relative newcomer Z. Also known as Zebulon Sixkill, the young Cree Indian was introduced in the last Spenser book that Parker wrote, Sixkill, and he's as entertaining and occasionally deadly as Spenser and Hawk.
Just as Z's presence injects new energy into the Susan-Spenser-Hawk relationships, Atkins is bringing his own energy and strengths to Parker's series. Cheap Shot is Spenser, by the book.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.