Oh, Spenser, bless your big old meticulous heart.
If Robert B. Parker's Boston private eye weren't already one of my fictional heroes, he would be after his response to another character in Kickback who tells him someone works in "Tampa Bay."
" 'Tampa Bay is a body of water,' I said. 'Is he in Tampa or St. Pete?' "
Actually, for that accuracy about Tampa and environs, which play a substantial role in the latest Spenser book, we can thank author Ace Atkins, who was chosen to continue the series after Parker's death in 2010. In the 1990s Atkins was a reporter at the Tampa Tribune and the then-St. Petersburg Times, and he knows the area well. (In 2006 he published White Shadow, a terrific crime novel set in Tampa and based on the real-life 1955 murder of crime boss Charlie Wall.)
Kickback is Atkins' fourth Spenser novel. I've thought from the first, Lullaby, that he got Parker's style and characters just right, but Kickback is the best one yet, with Spenser in fine wisecracking fettle.
Spenser's native habitat is Boston, and the book begins and ends there. His client is Sheila Yates, a single mom who lives in a bleak former mill town called Blackburn, outside Boston. Her teenage son, Dillon, is in trouble, she tells Spenser.
" 'He set up a fake Twitter account for his vice principal,' she said. 'He's a funny kid. Although some might say he's a smart-ass.' "
" 'I like him already,' " Spenser says.
Sounds like typical teen hijinks, right? Maybe deserving of some detention, a stern lecture. Dillon, though, was charged with terrorism, stalking and making physical threats against a school administrator — and a judge with a tough reputation named Joe Scali has sentenced him to nine months in a for-profit juvenile prison on an island in Boston Harbor.
His frantic mother is, of course, focused on his case. But it doesn't take Spenser long to discover that Dillon's fate is hardly unique. A disturbingly large number of kids from Blackburn are being sentenced to prison terms for vanishingly minor infractions; what's more, parents, especially immigrants who are not familiar with the U.S. legal system, are being told they should sign documents saying their kids don't want lawyers to represent them.
All that provides a steady stream of income for the company that runs the prison; occasional chapters from the point of view of one of the kids being held there give us a clear picture of how nasty the conditions (and the guards) are, and what a joke it is that the company promises to educate and rehabilitate its inmates.
Spenser also finds it interesting that almost all of those kids were sentenced by Judge Scali, who, a source tells the detective, "liked to be on the cable news shows and loved to give speeches to students. He became immersed in cultivating his own celebrity."
Following the money, always a reliable investigative strategy, Spenser finds that Scali and another judge who is his boss have, through their wives, a surprising amount of money invested in property and businesses in the Tampa Bay area.
So our hero and Hawk, his suavely deadly comrade in arms, head south. They check into the Vinoy in St. Petersburg and then hit some local high spots in the course of their investigation:
"We had a four-hour dinner at an old steakhouse in Tampa called Bern's. Hawk downed two bottles of Iron Horse champagne and the next morning showed no ill effects. He was dressed and ready in the lobby as I emerged from the elevator, reading the business section of the Tampa Bay Times."
They head to Tampa for an interview with a skeevy lawyer connected to the case:
"Ziggy Swatek's office was on the seventh floor of a building in Tampa that resembled a beer can.
" 'Everything looks like a beer can to you,' Hawk said.
" 'Maybe,' I said. 'But this building must have been designed on a very hot day.' "
The Hurricane, Bayshore, Brocato's, King Corona and Jackson's get name-checked, too. A couple of places are fictional but plausible; looking for a business in Ybor City that Scali's wife has invested in, Spenser and Hawk discover that the "address for Dixie Amusements turned out to be a bar called Bikini Wings."
Boston gets plenty of love in Kickback, too, and fans of the series will be gratified that both Hawk and Susan Silverman, Spenser's brilliant and beloved squeeze, get plenty of presence, along with Pearl the Wonder Dog. There are just enough bursts of violent action as Spenser untangles the whole sordid mess and at least some justice is done.
Good to have you in town, Spenser, and sorry about that bar fight in Ybor City. Come back soon!
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.