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Bookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend March 10, 2017

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WonderlandBookends: Spenser does a favour for an old friend

By Dan Davidson

January 4, 2017

– 830 words –

 

Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland

By Ace Atkins

Unabridged audiobook

Narrated by Joe Mantegna

7 hours and 2 minutes

Random House Audio

$17.99

 

This is book 41 of the Spenser series, the second written by successor writer Ace Atkins following the death of series creator Robert B. Parker. The first of these was Lullaby, which I reviewed as being decent enough, but longer than normal (by about 30 minutes longer than this one in the audio version) and quite a bit more profane in its use of language.

There was a pattern to Parker’s books. There would be a certain amount of cooking, some running, some Boston travelogue, some Susan and a bit of violence. Atkins hit all those notes, but it seemed like he was trying too hard.

He hits them again in Wonderland, but seems to be less forced. He is still more long winded. The last Parker novel was about a 5 ½ hour read and the Atkins’ books I’ve listened to so far clock in at 7 hours plus. In this case, the length is justified by a more complicated plot. At about the point where it seemed the main plot of the story was wrapping up, an unexpected murder sets it off in a new direction.

Susan Silverman is less present in this book than in most of the later Parkers, being on assignment teaching at a university in another city. She drops by Boston on the weekends.

Hawk is entirely absent from this story, being on some sort of personal assignment in Florida.

Atkins has apparently decided to flesh out some characters that are part of the canon, but haven’t been used too much. Zebulon Sixkill, a American Indian former college football player who had fallen on hard times, was introduced in the last of Parker’s novels (Sixkill). In this one he has been taken on as Spenser’s protégé. Z, as he is usually known, suffers from a bit of physical arrogance and had been a budding alcoholic when we met him. He still has that problem, especially when he finds himself physically overmatched by some of the bad guys in this book. So a good part of the story is about Spenser working with Z and Z learning the ropes.

Henry Cimoli owns the gym and training facility, which has been a feature in this series since almost the beginning, but in this book Henry is given a key role and provided with a lot of backstory with which we are not overly familiar.

Someone is trying to force Henry and the other elder residents of the condo where he lives to sell out and move on. The offer is pretty good, but awfully mysterious. Some residents like the proposed deal. Those who don’t, Henry chief among them, have been experiencing a series of increasingly annoying “accidents”. In fact, Spenser and Z enter the picture at about the time when things look to be getting personal and violent. Henry is set upon by a trio of thugs who are scared off by our heroes.

Since no one knows exactly who the interested buyer is, Spenser starts there and soon his poking around, as it often does, causes a series of reactions by the bad guys. Z, who has been tasked with watching over Henry, is set upon and injured by two of the same thugs they met before. He is hurt physically, but also psychologically, and his emotional recovery is one of the subplots in this adventure.

It turns out that the condo is the last piece of property needed to cement a deal for the creation of a casino in the area of the old Wonderland (hence the book’s title) dog racing park. Two parties are competing. One seems marginally more honest than the other, and, just as the deal is brokered with that group, with Spenser acting as mediator, one of the two front men is murdered and the affair takes a whole new turn.

There have been a number of readers in this series over the years, and while all have been interesting for the time of Spenser’s life, Joe Mantegna is one of the best for the most recent stories. Mantegna played the lead role in three made for TV Spenser movies and, to my mind, was better in the part than the late Robert Urich, who starred in the Spenser – For Hire TV series.

His bio includes the tidbit that he was a bass player as a young man in the 1960s, and was a member of the rock/jazz group that eventually morphed into the Chicago Transit Authority, which became just Chicago after that first double album.

He has, of course, been a regular cast member on Criminal Minds since he signed on in 2007 and has provided the voice of Fat Tony on the Simpsons since 1991.

 

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Bookends: Spenser offers a bit of holiday cheer October 15, 2014

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Bookends: Spenser offers a bit of holiday cheer

By Dan Davidson

Silent NightJanuary 1, 2014

– 856 words –

 

Silent Night: A Spenser Holiday Novel

By Robert B. Parker and Helen Brann

240 pages

Putnam

$26.50

 

Unabridged audio book read by Joe Mantegna

Random House Audio

$23.20

3 hours and 39 minutes

 

There are over 120 customer reviews of this book on the Amazon and Audible (owned by Amazon) websites. Most are negative and some go on at great length as to why the book didn’t work for them. The positive reviews are generally quite brief.

Some complain that the book is short, but Spenser novels have never been that long, and most of the audio book versions clock in at between four and five hours.

I haven’t sampled either of Ace Atkins’ extensions of the series yet, but seeing them in book stores I noticed they were thicker than those I have at home, and the reading times given at the Audible site show them to be an hour and a half or more longer than Parker’s regular offerings.

Some complain that Hawk’s dialogue is inconsistent, but it always was. It’s usually street talk patois, almost a parody of black tough guy, when he’s just with Spenser, but often formal standard English when he speaks to Susan.

Some complain that the plot is thin. Parker’s plots were often thin, and several of the later books seemed to me to be excuses to have Spenser and Susan chat in between set pieces. I enjoyed them anyway. Sixkill, the last one he finished, was mainly about the relationship between Spenser and the titular character, who he seemed to be grooming as a protégé.

This book is the last one Parker actually worked on and it appears that he had nearly all of a first draft done. They haven’t said exactly how much of it he wrote before he died, but it fell to Helen Brann, his longtime friend and agent, to pick up the pieces and tie up the loose ends. This is an arrangement that Joan Parker (all the books were dedicated to her) agreed to and I don’t have a problem with it. Not all of the Parker novels were brilliant works, but I always enjoyed them. This is a minor effort in the canon, but it apparently contains some things the original author wanted to say about his characters, and I found it road worthy.

There are two connected plots going on here. One has to do with Spenser’s decision to come to the aid of a home for homeless boys called Street Business. Someone is picking on Jackie Alverez’s clientele. Spenser and Hawk (good to see him again) take it on as a charity case during the Advent season.

Jackie has some financial support from his wealthy brother, but the latter’s import/export business seems to be a bit shady from the outset, even though he has ties to a charity that Susan favours and is known for his philanthropy.

He has arm and eye candy, a former star tennis pro who had fallen to drugs and fame but has rebuilt herself with his assistance, only to discover that he is not the nice man she once believed him to be. Learning of Spenser’s work for Jackie, she approaches him to help her and one of Jackie’s young charges, Slider, in whom she has taken a big sisterly interest.

Large chunks of the story are as predictable as episodes of any TV detective show, but this doesn’t really hurt the story that much. After all, Dr. Parker was a devotee of Raymond Chandler, who once admitted that he had no idea who killed the chauffeur in his murder mystery The Big Sleep. Parker wrote his PhD thesis on an analysis of tough guy detective fiction.

It develops that Jackie’s brother is planning to wrap up his Boston operations and flee the country as the feds are nipping around the edges of his enterprise. He has an interesting sense of personal honour and responsibility. He doesn’t like to be seen to be directly connected to anything nasty, so as not to bring dishonour to his mother. That doesn’t stop him from arranging for other people to torpedo his brother’s unlicensed group home and set up the assassination of his former mistress.

Spenser and Hawk have not only to save both individuals but also find a way to do this without causing Street Business to be shut down. A plot is hatched to accomplish these twin goals while taking down the crime lord and his operation. It’s a complicated scheme that requires local, state and federal authorities to cooperate. It works out in the end – but this is a Spenser novel, so you knew that.

This audio book was read by Joe Mantegna, who played the role in three TV movies a decade back before taking up residence as part of the cast of Criminal Minds. He has read about a dozen of the later Spenser novels, and does a good job at them. The earlier books in the series were generally read by Michael Prichard, but others were read by David Dukes and even Burt Reynolds.

 

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Bookends: More Good Mysteries for the Road December 29, 2013

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Bookends: More Good Mysteries for the Road

By Dan Davidson

May 8, 2013

– 891 words –

 

Introducing the Toff

Introducing the Toff

By John Creasey

House of Stratus

186 pages

$14.25

Introducing the Toff

By John Creasey

Narrated By Roger May

House of Stratus

$20.00


Length: 6 hrs and 34 mins

John Creasey was one of the most prolific of the 20th century generation of British mystery writers. He produced some 600 books in a variety of genres during his career, knocking out several each year and doing so under his own name as well as under nearly a dozen pen names. I used to have 30 or 40 of his books, my focus having been on the Toff, the Baron, and Roger West

mysteries, as well as the slightly science fictionish Dr. Palfrey series. It’s been easily 35 years since I’ve read one and he disappeared from the stands for a while, but he seems to be making a comeback in e-books and audio books as well as in paper.

This is the first of the Toff series, and not a book I had ever read. The Toff (a word meaning a rich person, or “swell”) is the alter-ego of the Honourable Richard Rollison, who comes across as a sort of cross between Leslie Charteris’ Saint and Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. The Saint was more of a loner and Wimsey not nearly so physical.

Rollison strikes fear into the hearts of the ungodly but has a good many

devoted friends on the wrong side of the tracks as well due to the ways in which he helps anyone that he feels could use a leg up.

He is drawn into this case when he is ambushed for no reason that he can think of while minding his own business on a narrow country lane. It turns out the bad guys wanted to hold him up just long enough to be able to get away from the scene of a murder they have committed just up the road a bit. They didn’t know who he was at the time. Their mistake.

From this accidental beginning, the Toff is drawn into a case that involves murder, drug smuggling and kidnapping and, at one point, requires him to pretend to be dead while recovering from injuries sustained in the chase.

This book is the first of 59, written between 1938 and 1978. Creasey actually died in 1973, but had so many books already finished, than his publishers had another three to seven years worth of posthumous releases (by J.J Marric, himself and Anthony Morton) to fill their lists after he was gone.

The book certainly shows its age in terms of style and social assumptions,

but it’s a great road book, and just about the right length for the drive from Dawson to Whitehorse.

 

Promised LandPromised Land

By Robert B. Parker

Dell

224 pages


$11.99

Promised Land

By Robert B. Parker

Narrated by Michael Prichard

Series: Spenser, Book 4

5 hours and 27 minutes

 

A promised land is what neither Harv nor Pam Shepherd have managed to find in their relationship after 20 decades of marriage and several small children. Trying to scramble to the top of the real estate heap has gotten


Spenser locates her, but decides not to tell Harv where she is other than that she is safe. This turns out to be a blunder as Pam and two loony friends who have overdosed on the Feminine Mystique and got it mixed up with the Black Panther movement (this is 1976, remember) decide to finance their 
Harv into trouble with a loan shark named King Powers, but that’s not why he hires Spenser. He hires her to find Pam, who has flitted off in order to find herself.

revolutionary dreams by robbing a ban so they can have money to buy guns.

In the event, one of the loonies kills am elderly bank guard and triggers the fun that begins. Meanwhile Harv is being visited by Hawk (his first appearance in the series), who is working the collection racket as Powers’ muscle. When Harv finally admits to Spenser that he is in over his head, Spenser is left in the unenviable position of trying to solve the problems of the two estranged spouses and perhaps get them back together for the sake of the kids.

It’s complicated.

This fourth book of the series is finally the one where Spenser leaves Brenda Loring’s charms aside and settles on Susan Silverman, who is still a high


Prichard seemed to get more into the narration of this book. There was less of the flat affect in his delivery than in the first three I listened to. Part of this is probably because Dr. Parker was writing a bit less like his literary heroes from the
Black Mask magazine days and finding his own style. He was getting to the point where he could enter his own promised land. He had become a full professor at this point and in just three more years his fifth novel would allow him to quite teaching and spend the rest of his life writing.school counselor at this point in her pre-doctorate life. Their relationship is a but shaky but intense, and Parker tries out his later habit of talking us right up to the bedroom door but (mostly) leaving them some privacy.

 

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Bookends: Two Mysteries for the Long Drive to the City December 29, 2013

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Bookends: Two Mysteries for the Long Drive to the CityHeat Wave

By Dan Davidson

March 25, 2013

– 837 words –

 

Heat Wave

By “Richard Castle”

Read by Johnny Heller

Tantor Media

6 hours 26 minutes

$22.99

paperback edition

Hyperion

208 pages

$14.99

The producers of the television show “Castle”, now in its fifth season, have produced a series of books ostensibly written by Nathan Fillion’s lead character, since it is the conceit of the show that Richard Castle is a novelist whose inspiration is the homicide squad which he shadows. Each season has produced a mystery novel, ghost written under the Castle name, and feeling very much like an extended episode of the series.

In the books a reporter named Jameson Rook is shadowing the squad led by Detective Nikki Heat (hence all the Heat related titles). Their relationship actually comes together quite a bit faster than the one in the series, where is took four years for Kate Beckett to succumb to Castle’s charms, but much of the rest of the action, plotting and repartee is quite similar to the series, and every major character has a print analogue.

Castle episodes often begin with the discovery of the body by some innocent bystander. In this case we have Detective Heat arriving at the scene of an apparent suicide. A Donald Trump-like real estate mogul has taken a dive from his sixth floor apartment building (causing Rook to quip “It’s raining men”) and left a very confusing state of affairs behind him.

His trophy wife is a former exotic dancer who has been “Henry Higgins’d” into a appropriate mate. He’s actually broke – way over extended in so many ways – and all that’s left is a fabulous art collection, which gets stolen part way through the story.


The story is told from Nikki Heat’s point of view. I was initially surprised that they didn’t use a female narrator, but then realized that this in “Castle’s” take on Heat’s viewpoint, so Johnny Heller makes sense. Besides that, he gives the book an excellent reading.
There’s mob involvement in the construction business fiasco. There’s Castle using his first name basis contacts to gain information about various aspects of the case. There’s the underlying tension between the two main characters, which persists even after their big night (which is described on the same pages as the TV show said it was on).

This isn’t a really strong book and not a very long one either, but it was entertaining and it made my latest drive to Whitehorse quite pleasant.

Mortal Stakes

Robert B. Parker

Mortal Stakes

Narrated by Michael Prichard

Audible

5 hours and 22 minutes

paperback edition

Dell

336 pages

$11.99

I first met Spenser during a summer studying computer science in Nova Scotia. He was a break from the programming languages that everyone in the 1980s still thought we were going to need to know, just before the first Macintosh computers made it stunningly clear that we weren’t.

Now that Parker’s gone I’ve been running through the books again, this time in audio versions.

The Spenser novels are so short that they’ve hardly needed to be abridged, and MP3 downloads to a player eliminate that need completely. We started this one just outside Whitehorse and finished it as we were entering Fifth Avenue in Dawson.

As with many of Professor Parker’s novels, the title comes from a poem, this one by Robert Frost.

“Only where love and need are one,

“And the work is play for mortal stakes,

“Is the deed ever really done

“For heaven and the future’s sakes.”

There are definitely mortal stakes at play here.

This one starts out appearing of be an investigation into possible rigging of baseball games. Is Marty Rabb, the star Boston pitcher, throwing games, or shading the odds? Well, it turns out he is, but there’s a good reason and he’s under the sort of pressure that Spenser feels he needs to remove.

He does try very hard to avoid actually killing anyone, but in the end takes out two of the villains in a set up that gives them a very good chance of killing him if he doesn’t do things just right. And it bothers her greatly to have had to do that, but he is convinced that Marty and his wife, who made some bad choices (and maybe had little option) when she was younger, deserve the life they have made for themselves.

While Spenser spends more time with Brenda Loring in this book, Susan Silverman is mentioned a number of times, and it is to her that Spenser goes late in the story, after he has a arranged his questionable hit on the bad guys, and it is clear that this is the person he will end up with.

I’m of two minds about Michael Prichard’s reading. At the beginning of each novel he seems wooden and bland, but as the stories develop he seems to get more into the spirit of the thing and becomes more interesting as a reader.

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Bookends: Spenser – from the Beginning August 16, 2012

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By Dan Davidson

June 20, 2012 ,       Star, June 22/12

– 805 words –

The Godwulf Manuscript

By Robert B. Parker

Dell Books

208 pages

$10.00

Audible.com unabridged version

narrated by Michael Prichard

5 hours, 12 minutes

The very first book in the Spenser series introduces us to a fellow who is a lot more like Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer than he would be later in his life. This is Spenser alone, not terribly happy with himself, drinking too much, capable of sleeping with a mother and daughter (not at the same time) within a 24-hour period. There is no Hawk and especially, there is no Susan.

Robert Parker had done his homework, though. He had, after all, written his doctoral thesis on the hard-boiled, mean streets type of private eye that had inhabited Black Mask and other such pulp magazines. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald were among the best of the lot who wrote this type of story, and Parker’s Spenser was originally cut from the same bolt of literary cloth, through he eventually became a much nicer, happier man.

Some things remained constant throughout the next 39 books. Spenser was an ex-cop who left the force because he had authority issues. He was an amateur boxer and had spent time in the military during the Korean War. He is 37 in this book (in 1973) and would age to just a shade under 50 during the 40 years that Parker (who died in 2010) wrote the series. Spenser would remain the master of the dry quip and the quick omelet throughout his career.

Other biographical details did change a bit. In an early book Spenser remembers some advice his mother gave him, but it was later established firmly that he was born by C-section and raised by his father and uncles after she died giving him life.

While this book has a title that immediately recalls the work of Robert Ludlum, the story has the feel of a Chandler novel. Spenser is hired to find a manuscript that has been stolen from a university collection. The university folk come off rather badly in this book and may reflect Dr. Parker’s ambivalent feelings about academia. He was a full professor when he quit to write full time after the fifth book in this series.

Following some slender leads brings Spenser to an early 70s radical group called SCACE (Student Committee Against Capitalist Exploitation), where he meets Terry Orchard, a poor little rich girl acting out against a sterile home life and disturbed parents. Within 24 hours Terry has her boyfriend murdered in front of her and herself set up to take the fall. Drugged by the killers, she manages to call Spenser for help.

He is hired by her parents to prove her innocence, a job that does not conflict with his original task since Terry doesn’t have the manuscript or actually know anything about it, although it turns out that her boyfriend did and that is why he has been killed. That he takes the case and is doggedly determined in his defense of Terry is the bit about this book that seems most Spenser-like to me. In the later books he will do things simply because they are the right thing to do, and there is that touch here.

This book gives us a first look at Joe Broz, the mobster who will turn up regularly throughout the series. In a scene very much like one that occurs in Sixkill, the last of the series from Parker’s word processor, there is a confrontation in which Spenser demolishes one of Broz’s hit men in a demonstration of hand-to-hand combat.

We also meet Spenser’s two recurring police characters, Lt. Quirk and Det. Frank Belson. The interaction here is a bit rough edged, as it is their first meeting, but there is definite chemistry before the story ends.

In this book Spenser has only the very beginnings of what will evolve into his personal code of conduct. Most of the later books just talk about sex, and then mostly with Susan. This one is full of it, including the arrangement I mentioned earlier, and one other pairing which closes off the story on a note of promise.

I wasn’t keen on the narrator of this book. Michael Prichard’s voice has a rather flat affect, and did not lend itself to this type of story as well as that of other readers, particularly Joe Mantegna, who played the character in several A&E TV movies. Still, I got used to it and he did not get in the way of the story.

Spenser novels are not long, generally clocking in at just under 5 ½ hours when read aloud. This is just perfect for the distance from Dawson to Whitehorse.

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Bookends: Mysteries at the Beginning and the End of Two Series June 2, 2012

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Bookends: Mysteries at the Beginning and the End of Two Series

By Dan Davidson

March 14, 2012

Star, March 16, 2012

The Surgeon

By Tess Gerritsen

Ballantine Books

384 pages

$8.99

When a detective series becomes a hit television show it’s inevitable that books are reissued with new covers an

d sometimes that false starts are made. If you pick up The Surgeon expecting to find the first lop-sided pairing of Jane Rizzoli (the homicide detective) and Maura Isles (the medical examiner) you will be disappointed. Isles doesn’t make it to this book at all, although something a little like her role is filled by Dr. Catherine Cordell.

This might instead be called a Rizzoli and Moore mystery, because Jane’s partner in this story is detective Thomas Moore, known despairingly to his mates as St. Thomas for his incorruptible ways. Moore is widower whose wife was a cancer victim.

TV’s Jane is a tomboyish, attractive female officer who appears to have the respect of her colleagues and decent, if tempestuous, family relationship. This book’s version is a Plain Jane (in her own eyes), insecure, combative and struggling to be taken seriously with the men’s club that is the homicide squad.

Cordell was the victim of a serial rapist/murderer two years earlier, although she managed to get hold of a gun and kill the man before he could administer his version of last rites. The attack took place in another city. She moved to Boston to get away from the memories and rebuild her life. She has accomplished this and has returned to a successful practice as a top surgeon. She is at the height of her new fame, subject of a local magazine cover story, when the killer the local police call The Surgeon begins his reign of terror.

It’s spooky. His modis operandi is almost precisely that of the man Cordell killed. It even includes those little touches that the Savannah police had kept out of the press. The only serious difference is that he uses duct tape rather than nylon rope to immobilize his victims. Since Cordell had managed to squirm free of her rope bonds, it’s as if he has upgraded his methods to take that into account.

Is it possible that this killer will be after Cordell to finish what the original killer could not? Or is it possible that Cordell, damaged more than anyone knew by her ordeal, is herself the copycat killer? Or is there some other solution?

Gerritsen (who had a first career as a doctor) began her writing career as a Harlequin romance novelist, and I’d say there were still traces of that in this book, as a love story blossoms (against regulations) between the two emotionally damaged characters, Moore and Cordell. This may explain why both of them disappear from the series, and also why this book won the Best Romantic Suspense Novel from the Romance Writers of America for the year it appeared.Her publisher is taking advantage of the popularity of the television show, now in its third season, (though it is just showing season one now on Showcase), and reissued most of the novels, bundling eight in a multipack offering as an eBook as well as issuing several paperback box sets of three or four books apiece. I enjoyed the first book and will likely read more of these.

Sixkill 

By Robert B. Parker

336 pages

Berkley

$10.99

In the last of the Spenser books to be written by Robert B. Parker things take an interesting turn as Spenser investigates the corrupt entertainment business, draws the attention of a hired assassin and takes on an apprentice.

It begins with the death of a young woman in the hotel room of a despicable movie star/comic named Jumbo Nelson. The circumstances are strange and while it looks a lot like Jumbo was somehow involved, the members of the Boston PD don’t actually believe he did it. No matter how good he looks for the crime, they actually think it’s not fair to prosecute the guy just because he’s an unlovable scum and they can’t stand him. They call on Spenser to poke around at their case and see what the holes are in it.

It seems there are quite a few.

There are two plots that run through this novel. The B plot is the murder investigation and the events that stem from it. The A plot is the rehabilitation of Zebulon Sixkill, the Native American (he prefers Indian) former college football star who had fallen – via a broken heart, booze and drugs – to becoming Jumbo’s strong-arm man.

Parker takes Sixkill under his wing and gives him a role model to aspire to.

The A and B plots overlap, of course, but the development of this relationship and rehabilitation of Sixkill (hence the name of the book) is the best part of the story. Had Parker lived to write more books in the series, I think we would have seen more of Sixkill.

Parker died of a heart attack sometime after he turned this book in to his publisher. The estate has selected an established writer of thrillers named Ace Atkins to continue the series. There has been some negative reaction to this amongst Spenser fans, but since Parker himself continued Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe series, I suspect the decision would not have bothered him. The first of these books will appear in May of this year and is titled Lullaby.

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