This is the second novel written by Ace Atkins featuring Boston P.I. Spenser, the late Robert B. Parker's best-known and best-loved series character. As the story opens, Spenser is approached by his long-time friend and trainer, Henry Cimoli, who owns the gym where Spenser works out. Henry has never before asked Spenser for a favor, but he needs one now.
Henry lives in a condo complex near an abandoned dog racing track called Wonderland. The units in the complex are owned mostly by elderly citizens like Henry and someone is making a play to buy them out. The developers are working through dummy agents, and when Henry and some others refuse to sell, the developers or their agents send in some thugs to intimidate them.
Naturally Spenser agrees to help. His long-time sidekick, Hawk, is out of town and so Spenser recruits his new apprentice, Zebulon Sixkill, a Cree from Box Elder, Montana to assist. Sixkill is no Hawk, at least not yet, but Spenser has high hopes for the young man and feels an obligation to pass on the knowledge and skills he has acquired through the years to someone who might follow in his footsteps.
Spenser and Sixkill deal pretty easily and effectively with the two hoods that have been threatening Henry and his pals, but of course the developers who want the land will not surrender the field nearly that easily. Upon further investigation, Spenser discovers that the developers have ambitions of bringing casino gambling to Boston and have settled on the Wonderland site for their development. Henry's condo complex is the last piece of property that they need to acquire, and so Spenser negotiates with the developers, as only he can, to get Henry and the other residents a much better price for their property. Now everyone is happy--until everything turns to crap. All of a sudden, people are dying and a sinister web of greed, ambition and violence threatens to ensnare and take down Spenser, Sixkill, Henry, and a whole lot of others.
With this book, Atkins hits the sweet spot that Robert B. Parker had achieved about halfway through the series. By then, the characters and their relationships were pretty well established and Parker was still writing complex and interesting plots. That's a polite way of saying thatWonderland is, frankly, a better book than some of the ones that Parker himself was churning out later in the series. By then, Parker seemed to be writing these stories about as fast as he could type. The plots were thin and not very believable, and the books seemed to exist largely as an excuse for Parker to write witty dialogue. And by then, the relationship between Spenser and his main squeeze, Susan Silverman, had become so saccharine as to seriously antagonize lots of long-time fans.
In this case, Atkins provides a lot of snappy dialogue but gives us a great plot and a number of interesting characters to go along with it. In particular, he handles the development of Zebulon Sixkill very nicely. Sixkill may not yet be ready for prime time and watching him react to the challenges that face him as the action progresses is one of the pleasures of this novel. And, mercifully, Atkins has also sent Susan out of town for the duration of the book. Readers have to endure a few telephone calls between the two and one weekend spent together, but virtually all of us I'm sure are in Atkins's debt for sparing us any more of this.
I'm a huge fan of Ace Atkins's other work, particularly his Quinn Colson series which has become one of my current favorites. It's nice to see that another of my favorite series characters has been left in such capable hands.