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The boarded-up church was no longer active, but three firefighters died in the blaze.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.