Spenser (his first name remains unknown), the Boston private investigator created by novelist Robert Parker back in 1973, remains that author’s best-known character. Parker, who actually wrote his doctoral dissertation on Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, was considered to be the archetype of modern detective fiction.
Some three years after Parker’s death, three writers have stepped forward to continue his work. One of those is Ace Atkins.
In Wonderland, Atkins’ latest book, Spenser teams up with his protégée Zebulon “Z” Sixkill, a Cree Indian introduced in Parker’s last novel, to help out an old friend. Early in his life, Spenser was a professional boxer and his trainer was Henry Cimoli. Henry subsequently opened a boxing gym turned health club that Spenser frequented. In all that time, Henry has never asked the private eye for a personal favor until now.
Henry and his neighbors live in a condo complex on the beach in Revere near an abandoned dog track known as Wonderland. The co-op sits on a key piece of land that would give a proposed casino on the Wonderland site access to the beach. They are being pressured physically by thugs to sell and Henry asks Spenser and Z for help.
Together, they confront the goons who threatened Henry and show them the error of their ways. However, that is only the beginning. As the redoubtable Spenser and his apprentice (several “Kemo Sabe” jokes are presented) continue to look into the matter, they uncover a collusion of industrialists, politicians, and underworld interests utilizing a mix of strong-arm tactics and bribes.
The man seemingly behind the casino project is multimillionaire Rick Weinberg, but there are other, more dangerous, characters behind the scenes with connections to organized crime in Las Vegas.
These heavy hitters want to build the casino, and none of them are willing play by the rules. Bodies start piling up and Z must overcome a personal challenge to his self-worth.
What is most interesting about this book is how Atkins honors Parker’s style of pacing and dialogue, but adds his own stamp to the plot. He does this in part by sending Spenser’s love interest Susan Silverman to North Carolina for the summer and his best friend Hawk, the mob enforcer, to Miami.
With these main characters elsewhere, Atkins moves secondary or recently introduced individuals, Henry Cimoli and Z respectively, to the forefront.
He also brings back seldom-used characters, such as Boston Globe reporter Wayne Cosgrove, bookie Lennie Seltzer, and Las Vegas private detective Bernard J. Fortunato.
Once only a supporting character, Henry is given a more substantial role and the bonds of friendship between he and Spenser are more fully developed. As Spenser acts as a mentor to the young, relatively inexperienced Z, the reader can see the contrast between Z (and Spenser in his own youth) and the older, more seasoned private eye.
Atkins also arranges for the professional relationship Spenser has with Gino Fish and Vinnie Morris, two underworld figures who have been around for years, to be strained. With such a reshuffling of the support system that Parker created for Spenser, the series has been injected with a sense of new possibilities.
While the book is clearly not the work of the master, Atkins comes closer to his level than some of the other authors who have continued where Parker left off.
Parker’s work was strong on characterization, dialogue, and plot, and Atkins delivers this formula while introducing his own spin to the series. I look forward to the next one.
Darren Ivey isa firefighter with the Manhattan Fire Department.