Monday, July 16, 2018
Books

Review: Atkins' 'Slow Burn' a sizzling serving of Spenser

Boston is burning.

At the beginning of Slow Burn, the fifth novel by Ace Atkins in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, it has been a year since a nine-alarm fire destroyed Holy Innocents Catholic Church, in Boston's South End.

The boarded-up church was no longer active, but three firefighters died in the blaze. One of them, Pat Dougherty, was the best friend of firefighter Jack McGee, who braces private investigator Spenser at his gym. McGee believes the fire was arson, even though the Boston Fire Department's investigation was inconclusive, and he also believes it's connected to dozens of arson fires set since then all over the South Boston and South End neighborhoods, now erupting almost daily.

Spenser protests to McGee that he's not a forensics guy. " 'I don't need more samples and microscopes,' he said. 'I'll pay you 'cause you know the worst people in the city. Some scum who'd do something like this.' "

Spenser can't argue with that description of his acquaintances, and besides, if you know Parker's enduring hero, you know he can't resist a crime that smells of coverup. McGee doesn't want to "make waves" in the fire department — he's a captain with a nice pension — so Spenser will have to tread carefully as he digs into the fire. But degree of difficulty is just the kind of challenge he loves.

At first, questioning members of the local criminal community gets him nowhere. Longtime mob guy Vinnie Morris, once an employee of Spenser's late nemesis Joe Broz and now a crime boss in his own right, offers an honor-among-thieves defense: " 'What's the world coming to?' Vinnie said. 'Joe Broz did a lot of bad things. Killed a lot of people. But he'd never have burned a church. Or hurt a Boston firefighter.' "

Even a career arsonist called Tommy Torch, whom Spenser questions at a Massachusetts prison, denies involvement, explaining his reason: " 'You catch that guy and he gets life,' he said. 'If he's lucky. If he's unlucky, Boston Fire will find him first.' "

Spenser gets more cooperation from members of a group called the Sparks, whose hobby (in some cases passion) is going to fires and watching the firefighters, supporting them with food and drinks and studying how they work. Many of them hoped to be firefighters themselves but didn't make the cut; others simply see the people who fight fires as heroes.

Atkins intercuts the chapters from Spenser's point of view with occasional ones focusing on the unlikely arsonists, so the reader knows who they are and what their unusual motive is before the PI does. But that just adds to the suspense as Spenser draws closer — and the danger comes all to close to home for him.

Atkins, formerly a journalist at the Tampa Tribune and then-St. Petersburg Times, took over the Spenser series, at the behest of Parker's family and publisher, after the author died in 2010. (The sixth book in Atkins' own Quinn Colson series, The Innocents, will be published in July.)

Atkins has proved to be adept at maintaining Parker's signature wise-guy tone and hard-boiled hero. He weaves plenty of local flavor into Slow Burn, from Spenser's dinner with his ageless beloved, Susan Silverman, at Alden & Harlow in Cambridge (and his visits to many doughnut shops) to his brawl with a couple of thugs in the Greenway Market. In search of videos related to the fires, Spenser meets with real-life Boston TV reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan, who is not only an Emmy-winning investigative reporter but the acclaimed author of eight mystery novels. (She won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2012 for The Other Woman.)

Of course, many of the usual cast of characters appear in Slow Burn. Spenser shares banter with Susan, and with Hawk, his man-of-mystery ally: "Hawk and I had perfected our act long ago. We were the Martin and Lewis of beating the crap out of people."

Some things change, though. Spenser's latest protege, Zebulon Sixkill, is getting ready to move to Los Angeles after three years of study, having gleaned nuggets like "Hawk said if you can't beat 'em, shoot 'em." And Spenser's Boston Police pal, Frank Belson, has a new captain, a woman with "green, unsmiling Irish eyes" who may prove to be a worthy Spenser adversary.

Slow Burn rises to a blazing finish and leaves Spenser with some major decisions to make. Can't wait to find out how it goes.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Comments
Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Hunter GorskieBecause soccer fans around the world will be watching the FIFA World Cup’s crowning game today, we decided to touch base with one of our own soccer players: Hunter Gorskie, the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ No. 27. Gorskie, a defender who played c...
Published: 07/13/18
Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

TIERRA VERDEAuthor Lori Roy has lived in Florida since 1996, but it wasn’t until her fourth novel that she wrote a story set in the state. "I just wrote an essay for CrimeReads on the intersection of Southern Gothic and crime fiction," Roy says. "You...
Published: 07/12/18
Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Life has dealt Jamie Elders a lousy hand. The 19-year-old wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from her hometown, a bleak little corner of New York state called Blind River. But she’s stuck there. In the opening chapters of ...
Published: 07/06/18
‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

Deborah PlantWe caught up with Plant, the editor of Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," a newly published book by Zora Neale Hurston, after her recent appearance at the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center. The book is based on Hurs...
Published: 07/06/18

Book events: John Cinchett to discuss ‘Historic Tampa Churches’

Book TalkJohn Cinchett (Historic Tampa Churches) will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.Teacher and author Rob Sanders reads from his new children’s book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and...
Published: 07/05/18
Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, died on June 23 at his home in Wilmot, N.H. He was 89. An influential poet for more than 60 years, the prolific Hall published more than 20 poetry collections as well as memoirs, fiction, essays, biographies,...
Updated one month ago
Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Every American is a child of immigrants.The only difference is how long ago your forebears came here from another land, by sail or steam, on foot or by jet engine, by choice or by enslavement.The clear winners of that contest, of course, are Native A...
Updated one month ago
Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Grief can unhinge us, disconnect us from our daily lives, make us do things we’ve never done. Grief made Tessa Fontaine run away and join the circus.To be more exact, the sideshow: World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the coun...
Updated one month ago