Review: ‘Slow Burn’ by Ace Atkins

SlowBurnCoverSlow Burn by Ace Atkins
G. P. Putnam’s Sons (May 3, 2016)

Boston is burning, one abandoned building at a time.

It is a year after the fire that consumed the empty shell that was once the Holy Innocents church – a fire that resulted in the deaths of three Boston firefighters. Those deaths still haunt Jack McGee, a fellow firefighter who has grown increasingly frustrated with his own department’s investigation into the incident. So frustrated, in fact, that he does the near-unthinkable and reaches outside the firefighter family for help. The man he calls on is a P.I. named Spenser.

As Spenser begins poking around, a rash of mysterious fires – small ones, at first, but growing bigger and bolder each week – begins plaguing the city’s fire department. Spenser has a few ideas about the origins of those fires, and how they might tie into the Holy Innocents incident, and he knows a few people he can ask – but as we know, the kinds of questions Spenser asks (and, sometimes, the way he asks them) have a way of upsetting some very bad people.

Ace Atkins delves into some very interesting territory as he takes us through Spenser’s investigation. Perhaps most intriguing is his take on the Sparks, a support group of sorts that has sprung up around the Boston Fire Department. The easy route would have been to portray this group as a bunch of pathetic groupies or wannabe firefighters; instead, Atkins gives us a more complex portrait. Yes, there are a few groupie types, a handful of characters who will never fully grasp that being a Spark is as close to being a firefighter as they’re ever going to get. But there are some solid individuals there, too, those whose admiration of the BFD drives them to show up and lend a helping hand or a cold bottle of water to the brave men and women putting their lives on the line every day. I would have loved to have spent more time with this group, but in the short time we have Atkins does a good, balanced job of commenting on the nature of fandom and hero worship as a whole.

This is the fifth book Atkins has written in the Spenser series originated by Robert B. Parker, so I think we’re beyond discussing at length how seamless the transition has been. Atkins continues to keep Spenser relevant with contemporary storylines without sacrificing the core elements of the character and the series. Familiar faces abound, and while it would be easy to set everything on cruise control at this point, Atkins does manage to make a few significant changes to the status quo before Slow Burn comes to an end.

In Atkins’ hands, Spenser has become my late spring comfort food. If there’s a better way to celebrate the end of winter and anticipate the coming summer than cracking open a new Spenser novel (and a cold one to go with it), I haven’t found it yet.

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