Saturday, November 23, 2013

Book Review--Robert B. Parker's Wonderland, by Ace Atkins

Photo: Book's hardback cover, from

I've gone on before about titles that contain the name of an artist as its main selling point, so I won't do so again here--except to say that book titles that contain the name of a deceased writer is even worse.  At least when John Carpenter used to title his movies with his name in it, he was still alive, directing them.  But when the publishing house (or perhaps it's Parker's estate) does so, it comes across as a bit gauche to me.  Especially when the real author, Ace Atkins, is doing such a credible job since taking it over.  How about giving him a little credit now?  Or does someone think that Spenser's loyal fans will forget that Robert B. Parker gave birth to him?

Having said that, Wonderland is a good book that could have been better if Atkins hadn't tried so hard to make Spenser so witty.  Even Parker didn't make his narrator this much of a wiseass.  Here Spenser drops something sarcastic, or witty, or banal (depends on your appreciation for what he says, I guess) in his dialogue and in his narration, a double-whammy here that makes it seem that Spenser is a little verbally out of control.  One minor character even says that he comes across as immature to people who don't think he's funny.  (Nobody ever dared call Parker's Spenser immature, except maybe Susan.)  There's way too much here, and it comes across as Atkins trying too hard, and not, surprisingly, like Spenser trying too hard.  Some of it is funny, but occasionally one sounds forced.

Another distraction here is that every now and then a piece of Spenser's dialogue simply doesn't sound authentic.  I've read every single Spenser, since the first--The Godwulf Manuscript--and I'm telling you that every now and then Spenser says something that sounds inauthentic, and it clunks.  A major tell-tale is that Atkins makes him speak on occasion too grammatically correct: he doesn't use contractions when anyone--especially Spenser--would.  One example of many is on page 273.  Henry Cimoli and Spenser are talking about how bad Spenser's psyche got when he got shot up by The Gray Man.  Henry calls it, "The really bad time."  Spenser responds: "They are all bad times when you are shot."  It's just too stiff.  Spenser, one of the more comfortable conversationalists in all of detective fiction (if not fiction in general), simple would not have sounded so formal, especially to Henry.  He would've deadpanned: "When you're shot, they're all bad."  Or something like that.

But, of course, this is a very quick read.  I might read faster than some, but I'll bet a Spenser fan will read this in a couple of days.  There are no great surprises here; the supporting characters are all users and being used.  The main characters go back and forth guessing who the guilty parties are, but the reader shouldn't.  Truth be told, the family-relation reveal towards the end shouldn't have been a surprise to Spenser, Healey, or Belson.  It is, though, and it's handled well.  I didn't consider the oddity of it until I'd finished reading, so that's good enough.  Your suspension-of-disbelief won't be ruined.  The writing is good, but Atkins has done better with Spenser.  I like the way that Atkins says a lot with very little, as Parker had.  Atkins might actually say more with his little.  Spenser fans won't be disappointed.  New readers to the series won't be blown out of their socks, but they shouldn't throw it away with great force, either.  It's a good read.

One caveat: Atkins shows his hand a little bit with the dating.  As Parker had, he throws in a sentence or two to let us know Spenser is narrating from some future date.  Something like, "The winter was especially cold that year..."  In Wonderland, Spenser frequently mentions how very, very bad the Sox are with overpaid stars and a manager that has won with them in the past.  So it's got to be 2011.  They were disappointing under Francona in 2005, 2006, 2008-2010, but they still won more than they lost, and they made the playoffs--or almost did--pretty consistently.  But the book says they were very, very bad, so it's got to be 2011.  Spenser has always gone out of his way to remind us that he exists in our real universe, during our real time--just an indiscriminate year in the past.  Here, he seems to have almost caught up to us.  This was a little jarring to me, though it may not be to anyone else.  I'm just putting it out there.  Feel free to politely disagree.

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