4 stars out of 5
I doubt I'm the first to say that I'll never enjoy the Spenser books as written by Ace Atkins nearly as much as those by the late, great Robert B. Parker. Because of that alone, it's unlikely that any of the post-Parker books will earn 5 stars from me. But doggone it, I enjoyed this one - and I remain happy that Mr. Atkins got the nod to continue the series.
But regrets? I've got a few, starting with a more subdued Susan - private investigator Spenser's main (make that only) - squeeze. And then there's the formidable sidekick Hawk, who seems to have lost a lot of the witty, irreverent banter of years past - with a few notable exceptions like this one:
Hawk to Spenser as they drive past an IHOP: "You eat here?"
Spenser: "God, no."
Hawk: "Good, 'cause there's a limit to the sh** I'll do for you."
Conversation aside, Hawk also is a major presence (or should be), and it's very disappointing to me that he doesn't make an appearance until halfway through this book - give or take a chapter or two.
Another complaint is that this one - which focuses on the mistreatment of young boys who are sentenced to a private "tough love" island prison mostly on the whim (and personal financial enrichment) of a couple of corrupt judges - borders on the preachy in spots. I haven't decided which kind of prison system is better - that operated by the government or privately owned - I'm convinced only that neither works very well. But I got the distinct feeling that the author has made up his mind and is intent on converting the rest of us. I read the Spenser books for enjoyment, so save the lectures for a non-fiction effort, if you please.
The book begins as the Boston-based Spenser is hired by the mother of a 17-year-old who was sent to the Boston Harbor prison because he set up a Twitter account on which he ridiculed his high-school vice-principal. The corrupt judge, known for his zero tolerance policy on youthful miscreants, sentences the kid to the island prison. His mother understandably is upset, and when mama ain't happy, nobody's happy; even the hard-nosed Spenser caves when she insists he look into the case even though it's on a pro bono basis.
Of course, proving that a respected local judge (and a higher-up) are acting illegally isn't easy - especially true when the dots connect with heavy-duty mobsters who aren't exactly Spenser's close and personal friends. Collecting the evidence takes Spenser and Hawk from frigid Boston to sunny Florida and back, with their lives - and perhaps those of the young prisoners - in the balance every mile of the way. In the end, it may not be the perfect Parker, but it's pretty sweet nonetheless.
Robert B. Parker's Kickback by Ace Atkins (G.P. Putnam's Sons, May 2015); 304 pp.