A few months after Robert B. Parker died of a heart attack at his writing desk in January of 2010, his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, approached Ace Atkins with a proposition. Parker’s family wanted Spenser, one of the most iconic private detectives in crime fiction history, to live on; and they were searching for the right writer to continue the series. Would Ace like to audition for the role by sending in 50 sample pages?
This was not an offer to be taken lightly.
Picking up a master’s mantle is never easy. Parker, one of the greatest crime-fiction stylists of the last 40 years, provided his own proof of that. When he attempted to mimic the great Raymond Chandler, completing the latter’s unfinished novel, Poodle Springs (1989), and then writing Perchance to Dream (1991), a sequel to Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep, the reviews were decidedly mixed.
Like Chandler, Parker seemed to be too much of an original to ever be replaced.
The appeal of Parker’s novels, after all, could not be explained by his smart-alecky hero, his gritty Boston setting, and his often thin plots. Readers treasured the Spenser novels primarily because of the author’s distinctive storytelling voice, a breezy style characterized by lots of ironic dialogue and crisp, short sentences that jitterbugged across the page in a cadence you could dance to.
Parker thought so himself. Some years ago, when I asked him why his work was so popular, he said this: “It’s the same reason that they like certain songs. . . . They like the way they sound.”
Atkins’ challenge, if he dared to accept it, would be to reproduce that sound. If he succeeded, readers would wonder if Parker were dictating the stories from the grave. If he failed, he would come off as a second-rate Comedy Store impressionist.
He had plenty of reasons to decline. His brilliant historical crime novels, including White Shadow and Infamous, had established him as a major figure in the genre. And he was about to launch a new series featuring a crime-busting former U.S. Army Ranger named Quinn Colson. The first book in that series, The Ranger, was a finalist for the prestigious Edgar Award for best novel this year.
But Atkins also had reasons to accept.
As a kid, he’d picked up a paperback copy of Parker’s first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, at a second-hand store and was immediately hooked. By the time he entered Tulane University, where he was a good enough football player to make the cover of Sports Illustrated in his senior year, he was on his way to amassing a collection of Parker’s signed first editions. Parker’s Spenser novels, Atkins said at a recent book signing at the famous Mysterious Bookstore in Manhattan, were the reason he decided to become a writer.
But there was more to it than that.
During Atkins’ sophomore year at Auburn, his father died suddenly. At the time, he was an immature kid trying to figure out how to become a man, and he was utterly lost. His coaches, who didn’t understand how a kid could want to play football and read at the same time, were no help. Neither were his professors, who couldn’t understand how a kid who wanted to write could also be a football player. It was Spenser, Atkins says, who taught him how to be a man.
Some of the lessons imbedded in all those detective stories: How to be your own man instead of the one others wanted you to be, the importance of tolerating those who are different from you, how to appreciate the finer things, and, most of all, how to live life well.
“You can stumble though life drinking Miller Light, or you can reach for the Sam Adams Winter Lager,” Atkins writes in In Pursuit of Spenser, a new anthology of meditations on Parker edited by Otto Penzler and published recently by BenBella Books.
So when the call came, Atkins didn’t hesitate. He wrote those 50 pages and sent them in. The publisher promptly forwarded them to Parker’s widow.
Joan Parker, the model for Spenser’s love interest, Susan Silverman, is a slim, charming woman with a quick wit and little patience for pretenders. At that recent Mysterious Bookshop signing, she sat at Atkins’ side and explained what happened when the publisher told her they had found the man to continue her husband’s legacy.
When Robert Parker was young, he was known as Ace, she said, so when she heard the name Ace Atkins, she had the feeling it was meant to be. Then she picked up those 50 pages, and the first paragraph convinced her it was so. In Atkins’ prose, she heard her husband’s voice.
She has a good reason to say that; she wants to sell books. But she also has a better reason. It’s true.
That first paragraph:
“I spotted the girl even before she knocked on my door. I was gazing out of my second-floor office window down at Berkeley Street, eating a cinnamon donut and drinking coffee with a little milk and sugar. The girl looked lost among the businesspeople and tourists hustling along the icy sidewalks. She wore a pink Boston Red Sox cap and an oversized down parka with a fur collar, and stared up at the numbers on the office buildings where Berkeley intersects with Boylston.”
Everything about that is pure Parker.
Read on, and it’s all there: The crisp, rhythmic sentences. The ironic banter. The distinctly Spenserian attitude toward life that Atkins adopted as his own. And yet, those who have read both Parker and Atkins closely may also detect a muted, indefinable quality that’s pure Atkins. And that’s a very good thing.
The plot, which has more substance than you will find in most of Parker’s later novels, begins when Mattie Sullivan, a street-wise kid stuck with looking after her younger siblings, insists that the police botched the investigation of her mother’s murder. She asks Spenser to investigate. Spenser doubts that she’s right, but, being Spenser, there’s no way he can turn her down. As he digs into the case, the cops and some of Boston’s ubiquitous thugs try to discourage him.
Those familiar with Spenser know that’s something that cannot be done.
As the story unfolds, Spenser turns to his black sidekick, the menacing but loyal Hawk, for help. Fans of the series will welcome the return of Hawk, who had been largely absent from Parker’s recent novels.
After Atkins was chosen, the publisher offered to send him all of the Spenser books so he could fully acquaint himself with the ins and outs of the series. “Are you kidding?” Atkins replied. “I’ve already got them all.” At the Mysterious Bookshop, Atkins said that as he wrote the novel, he was always conscious of trying to create the next Spenser book that he wanted to read.
Ace Atkins is not the first writer brought on board to bring new life to a Parker series. Last year, Jesse Stone, the police chief of mythical Paradise, Mass., returned in a novel titled Killing the Blues. But Michael Brandman, who had worked as a producer and screenwriter on the made-for-TV Jesse Stone movies starring Tom Selleck, made a mess of it.
He tried to recapture the ironic patter between Stone and the series’ other familiar characters, but the attempts at humor often fell flat. And Brandman’s attempt to mimic Parker’s musical style produced a stream of short sentences that plodded along with the monotony of a metronome.
Brandman is not the writer that Atkins is, but his failure puts an exclamation point on Atkins’ achievement. Parker lives. Spenser is back. And I can’t wait for the next one.
Discloser: Ace Atkins wrote some words of praise that appeared on the jacket of my first crime novel, Rogue Island. Lately, I’ve gotten to know him, and I consider him a friend. But I value my reputation as a reviewer too much to praise a book as a favor to anyone. If I didn’t love this book, I would have just kept my mouth shut.