Book Review: “Robert B. Parker’s Wonderland” by Ace Atkins

wonderlandI needed something to cleanse the mental pallet after Lou Berney’s “The Long and Faraway Gone.” It was such an intense read, the way Berney knifes the reader in nearly every single scene, that I needed to visit some familiar friends. Queue up Spenser.

Since Robert Parker’s sudden death in 2010, Ace Atkins has been carrying on the Spenser tradition with the blessing of the estate. Hand picked to keep Spenser going, Atkins has written four Spenser books thus far, and will likely keep going for the foreseeable future. The first one, called “Lullaby”, I reviewed here. It wasn’t a bad book, so I thought I’d give “Wonderland” a try.

Doesn’t hurt that I got it on remainder.

This time, the client is Henry Cimoli, the owner of the Boston gym where Spenser and Hawk used to (and still do) box. He’s being muscled out of the condo he owns so that a Las Vegas casino developer can move in and build. The novel explorers Henry more than I remember Parker ever doing, and Atkins mostly nails him. There is of course the usual cavalcade of characters that Atkins likes to bring to the stage, and to a certain extent, this feels like Atkins is trying to prove to the Parker faithful that he knows the Spenser work so well. Despite the fact that the book is chock full of characters Spenser has had contact with in the past, the characterizations largely work to the novels advantage.

There is one exception. The relatively new player in the on-going adventures of Spenser is one Zebulon Sixkill, the American Indian that Spenser has taken under his wing to train as a private investigator. This relationship feels forced, as if Atkins picked up a leftover character from the Spenser dinner table and decided to do something with him. In the final Spenser book by Parker, “Sixkill“, we’re introduced to “Z”, as Zebulon has come to be called, but there is nothing to indicate that he’ll be a continued or recurring character. I’m not sure if this is Atkins taking liberties, or whether any of Parker’s notes indicate that Z will continue, but in this case, it feels forced.

As a crime novel, it’s a good one. The plot is more complex than the ones Parker used to set up, at least in the later Spenser novels. Spenser’s sarcasm is present, though more muted than it was in “Lullaby”, which isn’t a bad thing. “Lullaby” felt a little over the top with the hard-boiled quips. Spenser is still sarcastic in “Wonderland”, but he never ventures down the path of snarky. The prose is not as lean as Parker’s was, but then again, few hard-boiled novels written these days are as lean as Parker wrote. Parker, self-admittedly, loved dialogue because it “chew[ed] up a lot of pages.” One could look at this as being lazy, but I find that Parker’s style was such that the plot, characters, and danger were all conveyed convincingly through dialogue, and sometimes dialogue alone. A great example of how this works is through the Jesse Stone novels (which I highly, highly recommend).

After the last page is done, Atkins still isn’t Parker. They’re tough shoes to fill. But Atkins does a nice job with most of the characters and the location of Boston itself. Spenser will continue to live on, and in Atkins hands, that’s not a bad thing.


Book Review: “Robert B Parker’s Lullaby”, by Ace Atkins


I picked this one up on remainder at Barnes & Noble last week. I discovered the character of Spenser about two years ago, around this time. Took a Spenser book on a road trip to Indiana in May. Since then, I’ve read about two-thirds of them.

The Spenser series is an interesting and often times terrific read. They’re almost like a candy you can mainline right into your bloodstream. I’ve jumped back and forth between the older ones and the newer ones. I haven’t been reading them in chronological order. That’s made the world of crime fiction’s most famous Boston-based private detective a little disjointed, but not cumbersomely so. Probably the most interesting thing about flipping back and forth between the older books and the newer ones is witnessing the evolution of a writer, something that might not have been as evident when the books are read in slow succession as each one was released.

As the series progressed, Parker’s style became leaner and leaner. Some books clock in at barely more than two hundred pages. Some inch up to the two-seventy mark. It’s a rare book that hits three hundred pages. The brevity of language and the brisk storytelling pace led some to claim Parker was “slipping” as he aged, but I disagree. Some books might read better than others, but none failed to entertain or, worse, compromised the character for the purpose of the story.

This might be the longest introduction to a review ever. But I feel it’s important to understand how Parker told the stories of Spenser before we jump into whether his successor, Ace Atkins, hand picked by the Parker estate to carry on the character, succeeded or failed.

So which is it? Did it succeed or fail?

Maybe a bit of both.

As characterizations go, Atkins came pretty close to capturing the voice of the world’s smart-aleck-i-est detective. There are a few misses with the side comments and wisecracks, but they’re few and far between. What is perhaps more noticeable is how heavy-handed the smartass is laid on. There comes a point where you begin to wonder whether Atkins’s Spenser is capable of a serious remark or any serious introspection, something Parker would lapse in and out of. It rounded out his character very well, but for the purposes of “Lullaby”, Atkins shies away from introspection.

The dialogue certainly snaps. But it’s far more profane than a typical Parker outing. Parker used obscenities in his books the way Spielberg used the color red in “Jaws”: when you saw it, it was blood and it was designed to elicit a visceral reaction. So too did Parker use curse words in his books. They were there, no doubt, he certainly wasn’t a prude. But they were only there when needed. Atkins meanwhile laces the four letter words in and out of the dialogue with a kind of reckless abandon.

But if the obscenities are a little more hard R than soft R, it’s less noticeable than Atkins treatment of the world of Spenser, or rather, the world of Robert B Parker. In many ways, it feels like Atkins is trying to establish his bona fides for writing a Spenser novel by pulling out references to as many previous Spenser books as he can. He mentions everything from Hawk being shot by Ukrainians (a reference to “Cold Service”) to Spenser having a wood carving hobby (reference to “The Godwulf Manuscript”). Between the character traits and the previous history, Atkins is overly zealous in demonstrating his Spenserian knowledge. This shows in his use of characters themselves as well. We get appearances from the usually cast (Susan, Hawk, Quirk, Belsen), but we get an onslaught of minor characters or references to minor characters (the Brozs, Gino Fish, Vinnie Morris, Tony Marcus, Ty-Bop, Junior, Paul, Z Sixkill). It’s nearly overwhelming to have so much of Parker’s cast one one stage such that it feels like a reunion show.

But so that you don’t come away thinking that the novel is a failure, I have to say that I’ve never felt more more danger for Spenser & Co. Without Parker to guide the disposition of his creations, Atkins may (or may not) be at liberty to axe one or two. As the books draws to a close, a slow investigation, in which much time is spent in cars staking out people, accelerates toward a violent conclusion. It was in these final moments that I feared for Spenser and Hawk in a way I had not in previous Spenser books.

All in all, it was an interesting read, at times fun, at times distracting. As hard boiled crime goes it was good, if not standard fair. In the end, though, it was certainly not Parker.

Formatting Dialogue

One of the blogs I follow is Read To Write Stories, by Michael Noll. It’s a blog dedicated to delivering ideas about how to write, and offering writing prompts and exercises to get the creative juices flowing.

Today’s post was all about dialogue, and how to make dialogue in your fiction move faster. As an example, he offers a story called Paper Tiger, by Liz Warren-Pederson. The way Warren-Pederson structures her dialogue is by having large blocks of it in a single paragraph. Take the following opening paragraph as an example:

“I want to invite the kids for Thanksgiving this year,” Cynthia said, and I said, “What the fuck? Where will I eat,” and she said, “I was hoping you’d eat with me, next to me,” and I said, “What a fucking misery,” and she said, “That’s not what you said last night,” and I said, “Well, we weren’t under a microscope then,” and she said, “You worry too much,” which was so off-base that I didn’t bother to respond.

Given how the author has set up the voice of the narrator, this works pretty well. And yes, it moves along at a zippy pace.

But does it move too fast?

Micheal Noll’s post it made me think about was the structure of dialogue in my own writing, and that of other writers whose narrator’s are telling the story. The book I’m currently writing is a first person narrative in the hard-boiled crime fiction genre. Given how fond I’m an of Robert B Parker’s Spencer series, my choice of subject matter is probably not surprising. Yet even as a write my novel, I’m trying to avoid a certain pitfall Parker often fell into. Take the following excerpt from Hugger Mugger:

Good morning,” I said, to let them know there were no hard feelings about them interrupting me.

“Spenser?” the man said.

“That’s me,” I said.

“I’m Walter Clive,” he said. “This is my daughter Penny.”

“Sit down,” I said. “I have coffee made.”

“That would be nice.”

I went to the Mr. Coffee on the filing cabinet and poured us some coffee, took milk and sugar instructions, and passed the coffee around.

When we were settled in with our coffee, Clive said, “Do you follow horse racing, sir?”


“Have you ever heard of a horse named Hugger Mugger?”


“He’s still a baby,” Clive said, “but there are people who will tell you that he’s going to be the next Secretariat.”

“I’ve heard of Secretariat,” I said.


“I was at Claiborne Farms once and actually met Secretariat,” I said. “He gave a large lap.”

In fourteen lines of dialogue, there are nine what I would call “he saids”, where the author inserts a “he said” or “she said” or “I said” to anchor you to who is speaking. This is a lot. It didn’t occur to me just how many this really was until I was talking to my mother about Spenser books. She likes to listen to the audio version, but she couldn’t do it with Spenser books because of all the “he saids”. Whereas, as a reader, I think we have a tendency to pass right over then, registering them in the barest way possible so that they don’t slow down the dialogue.

Now compare this to a book I just finished rereading this morning, The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway:

“Couldn’t we live together, Brett? Couldn’t we just live together?”

“I don’t think so. I’d just tromper you with everybody. You couldn’t stand it.”

“I stand it now.”

“That would be different. It’s my fault, Jake. It’s the way I’m made.”

“Couldn’t we go off in the country for a while?”

“It wouldn’t be any good. I’ll go if you like. But I couldn’t live quietly in the country. Not with my own true.”

“I know.”

“Isn’t it rotten?” There isn’t any use my telling you I love you.”

“You know I love you.”

“Let’s not talk. Talking’s all bilge. I’m going away from you and then Michael’s coming back.”

“Why are you going away?”

“Better for you. Better for me.”

“When are you going?”

“Soon as I can.”


“San Sebastian.”

“Can’t we go together?”

“No. That would be a hell of an idea after we’d just talked it out.”

“We never agreed.”

“Oh, you know as well as I do. Don’t be obstinate, darling.”

“Oh, sure,’ I said. ‘I know you’re right. I’m just low, and when I’m low I talk like a fool.”

I sat up, leaned over, found my shoes beside the bed and put them on. I stood up.

“Don’t look like that darling?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“How do you want me to look?”

“Oh, don’t be a fool. I’m going away to-morrow.”


“Yes. Didn’t I say so? I am.”

“Let’s have a drink, then. The count will be back.”

Did you count them? That’s twenty-eight lines of dialogue, and only one “he said”. And while the structure is completely different then Warren-Pederson’s story, I find this dialogue moves just as quickly.

So which is the right one? I suppose that depends on personal preference. My gut tells me that Warren-Pederson’s structure would be simply exhausting for anything longer than a short story. Reading a novel in that format would leave me panting. Plus, in a structure such as this, the writer must absolutely include on a 1:1 ration a “he said” for each line of dialogue. One the other hand, Hemingway’s structure left me panting as mush as “Paper Tiger”, where I found myself grateful for the blocks of descriptive text at the end of each dialogue jag so that I could catch my breath. And Parker’s copious inclusion of all the “he saids” borders on distracting the reader and throwing them out of the story.

I feel that, for my own writing, there is a happy medium to be found in the number of “he saids” included in the story. Somewhere between one and nine…