In 1971 Robert B. Parker (1932-2010), the dean of American mystery writers, received his PhD in English literature, and in 2002 he received the Grand Master Edgar for his lifetime achievement in mystery writing. He drew on his English major’s background when he had his detective, Spenser, who never had a first name, quote poetry to crooks. Parker also assimilated the ambiance of Raymond Chandler’s mysteries, as well as Ernest Hemingway’s effective use of understatement by a first person narrator. Parker was extremely prolific. He wrote dozens of novels, and created three major series characters. When he died, suddenly of a heart attack, mystery fans everywhere grieved.
All this explains why Ace Atkins took on a daunting task when he made an agreement with the Parker estate to continue the Spenser franchise. For an American crime writer it was the equivalent of agreeing to write a prequel for “Hamlet.” Atkins knew that he was opening himself up to constant comparisons. To be successful he had to submerge his own style, which he had developed in several earlier crime novels, into Parker’s style. He had to take over the characters of the Spenser novels (Spenser, his unforgettable girlfriend Susan Silverman, his enigmatic sidekick Hawk, plus assorted cops and crooks) as well as the plot conventions that legions of Spenser fans had grown to love. Spenser had to sit in his office and look out at the streets of his beloved Boston; he had to cook, both for himself and for Susan; he had to make flippant comebacks when bad guys threatened him. And so forth.
The good news, the really good news, about Atkins’ third Spenser novel “Cheap Shot” is that he has done all this, and more. Even readers who are familiar with Parker’s massive oeuvre will forget that they are reading Atkins and think that Parker has risen from the dead to write again. Atkins shows his mastery of the conventions of the genre in the first sentence of “Cheap Shot”: “I had dressed for Chestnut Hill: a button-down tattersall shirt that Susan had bought me, crisp dress khakis, a navy blazer with gold buttons, and a pair of well-broken-in loafers worn without socks.” Parker had used a similar opening several times, and Atkins knows perfectly well it derives from the opening sentence of the Raymond Chandler classic “The Big Sleep.” Atkins’s delicate balancing act is to pay homage to tradition while invigorating it.
In “Cheap Shot,” Spenser’s client, Kinjo Heywood, is a two-time All-Pro linebacker for the New England Patriots, and the obvious analogy in Parker’s work is “Mortal Stakes,” in which Spenser deals with a Red Sox cheating scandal. But Atkins takes us to Patriots’ practices and inside the locker room. He refers to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Atkins lives close to football-crazy Ole Miss, and this may explain why he writes so knowledgeably about the game.
Some of Parker’s Spenser novels are darker than others. In “A Savage Place,” for example, Spenser loses his client, Candy Sloan, and is devastated by his failure. In Atkins’ “Cheap Shot,” there is some witty repartee, but the general tone is as dark as that of “A Savage Place.” Kinjo Heywood is no macho jock, for example. When his son is kidnapped, he is heartbroken, and cries openly. His big, tough teammates are distraught, too.
Having just signed a 10 million dollar contract, Heywood is able to raise four million in ransom to save his son, and then all hell breaks loose. Atkins provides multiple plot twists and betrayals along the way. Naturally, though, Spenser cares more about honor than money, as the last scene shows.
In short, “Cheap Shot” is a tour de force, and a much better read than Spenser fans might expect it to be. Here’s hoping the Atkins is already hard at work on the next one!