With Lullaby, published May 1, Ace Atkins has deftly pulled off a difficult task, stepping in and continuing the good, popular Spenser series in the same voice, style and tone of its creator, the late, great Robert Parker.
I last interviewed Atkins, for his book The Ranger. He had recently been selected by the Parker estate to continue the Spenser series. Longtime Parker collaborator Michael Brandman was picked to continue Parker’s Jesse Stone series.
But being asked to continue the Spenser series and actually writing the book are two very different things. So I, like many long-time fans of the Spenser series, approached Atkins first foray into the Spenser series with some worry and trepidation. Will he stick with the basic formula or make some changes, as Jeffrey Deaver did recently when he wrote his first book in the James Bond series?
I’m happy to report Atkins not only didn’t mess with the formula but he wrote a book that was more reminiscent of Parker’s mid-career books, back when they were even better than usual. The book has good dialogue and an excellent plot.
Atkins has his own popular series, which started with The Ranger. The book’s protagonist is Quinn Colson, an Army Ranger who has returned to life in Wyoming. The second book in the series about Quinn is The Lost Ones.
Atkins, who blogs here, is a former journalist who earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a feature series he wrote while at the Tampa Tribune. He published his first novel by age 27 and was a full-time novelist by age 30.Some of his more acclaimed novels include Wicked City, White Shadow, Devil’s Garden, and Infamous.
Just in case you were worried that Atkins book doesn’t have the quick, fun dialogue of Parker’s Spenser books I thought I’d give you a sample. This comes when Spenser is being bossed around by his new client, Mattie Sullivan, 14, who has hired Spenser because she thinks the man in jail for killing his mother four years ago didn’t do it. The police and others don’t seem to care too much about the killing since Mattie’s mom was a drug-using prostitute. But still, she was someone’s mom. Mattie also has to take care of her twin sisters and her grandma, a heavy drinker, isn’t much help.
Sometimes Spenser’s detective style moves too slow for Mattie as is the case in this scene when Mattie is insisting, against Spenser’s wishes, that she join him.
“Going somewhere?” I asked.
“That’s not how I work.
“What about the birthday party?” I said. “Who gets the twins ready?”
“I can help,” she said. “You need me. Hey, Grandma?”
“Mattie walked over and pushed at the gaunt woman’s shoulder as she brushed past me to the door. Grandma stirred. I thought of a hundred ways to lose her or explain just how I did my job. I could force the issue.”
“Mattie stood outside the door and pointed to the center of my chest. ‘Whatta you want? Me to hold your hand? C’mon.”
“Yes, your highness.”
Later there’s an exchange which made me laugh out loud. They’re showing photos of Mattie’s mom at a bar she used to frequent. When the person seems confused Mattie clarifies things: “He’s a detective, numb nuts,” Mattie said. “And that’s a picture of my ma. She used to make happy hour at this shithole, every day from the time she was out of of high school. You know her or not?”
“I’ll be the good cop,” Spenser said.
One last thing before the interview: just as Atkins is writing these books for the Parker estate Parker himself finished one book, Poodle Springs, at the request of the Raymond Chandler estate. Chandler had started it but not completed it before he died. Parker also later wrote Perchance to Dream, a sequel to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I mention this because Atkins alludes to it. He also alludes to Joan, Robert Parker’s widow. Many of Parker’s books, as well as Atkin’s first Spenser book, is dedicated to Joan Parker.
So last time I interviewed you had just published your first book in the series, The Ranger. Do you want to say a few words about the second book in that series, The Lost Ones – when it’s coming out and what it’s about- before I devote the rest of the interview to talking about your first Spenser book, Lullaby?
The Lost Ones. May 31. Buy it! Seriously, it’s definitely an important piece of an evolving story of Quinn Colson and Tibbehah County. Secret histories and whispered stories from The Ranger are learned in this second story and we get a glimpse of a lot more to come.
So we talked last time about you being picked to continue the Spenser series. Can you talk about what it was like to actually write a Spenser book? How did writing it compare to writing the other series?
Writing for Spenser is definitely a different process than writing for Quinn. I imagine it’s a bit like Bob writing for the Chandler estate. I know there were huge expectations for him and certainly personal ones writing for someone he admired so much. I am a lifelong fan of the Spenser novels, so it was a natural process getting into that world. Robert B. Parker was definitely the writer who led me to crime fiction.
I have read that you made a point of not trying to write books for the two series simultaneously — was that because they are of such different styles and voice? I also read that you would eat and drink and do the things Spenser would do, like reading the Boston Globe each day. Was that to get in the right frame of mind? Can you talk about how and why you decided to do that?
That’s right. I can’t write both series at one time. The voices and styles are too different. But when I write Spenser, I am more apt to drink more beer or bourbon. (It’s hard work but I do what I can.) Or since I write Spenser in the spring and summer, I do watch a lot of baseball. I always follow the latest in Boston since Spenser is a contemporary character. I want to be up on the latest political and social trends in an evolving city. Spenser and Boston are so intertwined. I’m also in the city a lot which is an absolute pleasure. So many doors have been opened for me knowing that I work for the estate.
Do you have to run the books or individual chapters by the Parker estate or how does that work?
I technically work for the estate. So the books go through Joan and trusted readers. Joan was always Bob’s first reader anyway. So it’s always been part of the process. I am also fortunate to be working with Bob’s longtime editor, Chris Pepe. Chris has been a tremendous asset as Spenser moves forward. It gives a real sense of continuity.
Are there any limitations on what you can do with the series? For example, what if you wanted to kill off a character?
I’m sure there would be a lengthy discussion if anything in the Spenser universe was about to be upended. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t happen. If there was a plausible, intriguing reason I’m sure Chris and Joan would be open to it.
Are you making a point of not messing with the original formula or do you have plans for any changes to it? For example, while reading this I thought about the controversy caused by plans to have James Bond drink a beer instead of his standard drink in a future Bond movie and it made me think about how it may be hard to stick with such traditions when purists might object to any change.
I get a lot of questions about the handling of Bond and the handling of Spenser. But this is such a unique situation. Ian Fleming wrote cold war novels that had to be thawed for and retooled for a modern audience. For us, Lullaby is the 40th Spenser novel following on the exact pub date of Sixkill a year later. So what I seek to do is continue Bob’s great work. Not reinvent. Spenser is Spenser. As Bob wrote Marlowe as Marlowe. Not a new Marlowe. Spenser endures.
How would you describe Mattie, the 14-year-old client in this book? Both Spenser and Susan compare her at least twice to Paul, a boy Spenser helped much earlier in the series. Was that a conscious choice to both extend the series with this book and new character while also connecting/comparing her to a character much earlier in the series?
Mattie is tough and self sufficient — two qualities Spenser greatly admires. I definitely thought it was time for another Paul — a kid who needs guidance — in the Spenser universe. I think Mattie will be with us in future books. And yes, I wanted a new personal challenge for Spenser while learning from events of the past.
Who has been your favorite of the Spenser characters to write about? Could you please do a book just about Hawk?
Of course, everyone loves Hawk. Hawk is Hawk. But I also like some of Spenser’s other pals we haven’t seen in a while. Wayne Cosgrove, the reporter for The Globe. Lennie Seltzer, the bookie who runs the Tennessee Tavern. Wonderful characters I want to revisit.
A book just with Hawk. I agree, that would be pretty cool. But pretty short. Hawk would kill everyone in chapter 1.
What was the hardest part of switching from your voice to that of Robert Parker? Or did you even think of in those terms of being Parker as opposed to thinking like Spenser?
The latter is correct. I work and think like Spenser. No writer can ever replace Robert B. Parker. But I do feel I can be and write as Spenser. Again, I get inspiration from the way Bob brought back Philip Marlowe — I thought his work was masterful for those Marlowe novels.
Have you started writing the second book in the series? If so, can you give a tease as to what it will be about?
Hmmm. Good question. And yes. I’m about halfway into the 41st Spenser now. I can tell you the next novel revolves around Spenser’s relationship with Henry Cimoli and the casinos coming to Massachusetts. I’m so honored and thrilled to have a chance to do this. I thank the Parker family often for entrusting Spenser with me.