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Every year, at just about this time, a book arrives at my home. For years, the author of the series of books was Robert B. Parker; for the last few years, it has been Ace Atkins, who picked up Parker's mantle after the iconic writer passed away.

That's what happened this week. The book was "Robert B. Parker's Kickback." I opened it lovingly, cracked open a beer, put my feet up, and read the following opening paragraph:

On the first day of February, the coldest day of the year so far, I took it as a very good omen that a woman I'd never met brought me a sandwich. I had my pair of steel-toed Red Wings kicked up on the corner of my desk, thawing out, when she arrived. My morning coffee and two corn muffins were a distant memory.

It is spring, and all is right with the world because Spenser is on the case yet again.

I am happy to report that "Kickback" is the best of Atkins' four Spenser books; they've all been worthy successors to the Parker canon, but with each book he seems to gain confidence and familiarity, adopting the Boston PI's first person narration with increasing ease.

"Kickback" has all the elements that one would like from a Spenser novel. Our hero finds himself facing off against authority figures of surpassing arrogance - in this case, corrupt Massachusetts judges who are sending teenagers guilty of minor crimes off to an Alcatraz-like detention center without benefit of counsel or trial. The judges have managed to convince the municipality that this is the kind of requisite tough love that will return the teens to the straight and narrow, but Spenser is smart enough - in part because he probably would've been one of those teenagers - to know exploitation and corruption when he sees it.

One of the things that is interesting about "Kickback" is that Atkins is allowing his protagonist to age a bit, to show some vulnerability. He's just come off knee surgery: "A life's work of busting heads and kicking butts could be hard on the joints," he says at one point. And he seems to be comfortable with some level of diminished capacity: "I was still able to leap medium-size buildings in a single bound, but my X-ray vision was a bit iffy."

But even slightly diminished Spenser is worth a visit, because in the end, as important as physicality is to the character, his moral center is far more critical to how he approaches his work and environment. One of the great things about the classic American detective novel is that, when it works, it balances two genres. On the one hand, most of them are, at their heart, westerns - the main character is trying to tame a hostile town. But they also are morality plays, as the detective serves as a kind of personification of ethical behavior, trying to put things as they should be.

Raymond Chandler put it this way about his detective hero, Philip Marlowe:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it ... The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure.

The good news about Ace Atkins, and "Kickback," is that he makes it work with a specific sense of the place about which he is writing, the characters who embody this world (especially Hawk, one of the best literary sidekicks ever invented), and a plot that moves forward though the mean streets of Boston (with a side and very entertaining detour to Tampa), relentlessly, compellingly, and with plenty of style and irony.

If you're a Spenser fan, you'll enjoy it immensely. If you've yet to crack open one of these entertaining yarns, well, it's time ... because this novel works on its own terms, even without the enormous history of its main characters.

Which leads me to the business lesson. (You knew there would be one, right?)

I had a chance to sit down with Ace Atkins this week as he started his publicity tour for "Kickback." (This has become a nice little tradition for the past several years. Ace probably doesn't enjoy it as much as I do, but for me, it is a rite of spring.)

One of the things we talked about was the nature of writing characters that were invented by another writer, and Ace said that he brings to the table an ability to "find great stories for Spenser and Hawk to star in. It is almost like they are actors who are in my company, and I need a vehicle for these guys that's a damned good story for them to be in ... I'm looking for new, modern stories for them to have something good to do." It wouldn't be hard to find a writer who could simply imitate the rhythms of Parker's prose, find some familiar scenarios, and cash in on the name ... but Ace is after something more profound than that.

As a former journalist, he 's looking for fresh ways into the characters and stories, for different angles. He may be playing jazz, just like Parker did, but he's riffing on the melody, creating a unique backbeat, finding chords with a different progression.

That's a great business lesson. Companies that think they've found the formula, think they've identified the magic sauce, and try to replicate that over and over, almost certainly are going to lose any sense of authenticity, of discovery, of a unique connection to the customer. I'm impressed by how Atkins is nurturing the tradition without being trapped by it, and I'm already looking forward to his next Spenser novel.

Spring 2016 cannot come fast enough.

(Though, to be fair, Ace Atkins also has another series going - the Quinn Colson novels, the latest of which, 'The Redeemers," is due out in late July. The Colson books capture the modern deep South with a unique voice and yet all the narrative expertise that he's brought to the Spenser series. So I don't have to wait until next spring for my Ace Atkins fix ... just until July 21. Yippee.)

By the way, the sandwich referred to in the opening passage of "Kickback" is an Italian grinder from Coppa, in Boston's South End, "with extra provolone and pickled cherry peppers."

Be still my heart.

Speaking of food, I had a wonderful beer while in Boston this week: a Notch Left of the Dial IPA, which was hoppy and delicious ... and perfect with the Shrimp and Crab Étouffée that I had at Legal Test Kitchen on Boston's waterfront.

And speaking of beverages, I have a couple of wines to recommend to you this week.

First, the 2011 Stringtown Pinot Noir, from Oregon ... which is a great example of why Oregon Pinot Noirs soothe the soul and salve the spirit.

And, there is the 2014 Carlton Cellars Pinot Gris, also from Oregon. (This is one of my favorite vineyards, and I only get to drink their wines while I'm in Connecticut because I belong to their wine club. You should join, too.)

The Pinot Gris was great ... and perfect with a scallops-peppers-onions and brown rice concoction I invented last night, cooked in a citrus-Latin marinade that was pretty good for my soul and spirit as well.

It's also been a good week because I knocked one more baseball stadium off my list, as I look to visit and see a game in every major league ballpark.

This one was Minute Maid Park in Houston, which I'd somehow missed over the years. (I'd been to the old Astrodome years ago.) I'm not usually big on covered stadiums, but in this case, I was happy for the roof since it was raining outside ... and there is an enormous glass wall across the outfield that creates the illusion that you are connected to the outdoors. And thanks to the wonderful folks at Minute Maid for giving me a great seat to the game ...

I just have two stadiums left on my list (at least until Atlanta opens the new stadium for the Braves, Sun Trust Park, in 2017). Sometime this year, I hope, I'll manage to visit Marlins Park in Miami and Tropicana Field in Tampa.

Then, once that's done, I'll have to rank them. Stay tuned.

A guy's gotta have goals.

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