After the popular novelist Robert B. Parker died in 2010, fellow novelist Ace Atkins was charged with keeping Parker’s fictional private investigator Spenser alive. Cheap Shot is the fourth Parker novel written by Atkins, and it has a sports hook. One of the main characters is a fictional member of the New England football team actually called the Patriots and actually coached by Bill Belichick. Bill Littlefield spoke with Atkins about his new book and taking over for another author.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Ace Atkins
BL: You were already a successful mystery writer in your own right before taking over the Spenser series. What was the attraction in continuing another author’s franchise?
AA: I think getting a lot of dirty letters from people, emails, people say “Who the hell are you? What do you think you’re going to do?” It was truly being a fan. I had been a fan of Robert B. Parker since I was 15 years old, and I would not have become a crime writer, I would not have become a journalist, I would not be such a voracious reader if it were not for Robert B. Parker. So it was a wonderful opportunity, but also very personal. I loved Spenser. I wanted these books to continue. It was a wonderful opportunity.
BL: So you hung around the Patriots locker room, the weight room, the facility in general. Did you talk to any particular players or coaches in the interest of achieving authenticity in this novel?
AA: Not really. My father worked for the NFL for 30 years and as a kid I thought it was a pretty normal background to be able to hang out with John Montana and Roger Craig and Jerry Rice. And that was — as a kid my dad worked for the Buffalo Bills and we bounced around the football league, so I had certain charters and people in mind when I was going to be writing about a pro football team.
And of course the main character in the book, Kinjo Heywood who’s a star marquee linebacker, was made up of guys not only that I knew through the NFL and my father, but also when I played football at Auburn — guys that I had played with personally. So that was not important. Just some of the marquee names I kept the same, but other parts of it are fiction.
BL: I want to go back to something you said a moment ago, I presume in jest. There are people who were just devoted to Robert B. Parker’s character as created by Robert B. Parker. Do you hear from people who say “What the heck do you think you’re doing? Spenser just ain’t Spenser anymore.”
AA: You know I expected that. I didn’t take this job lightly. I mean Bob Parker created something that has become iconic and larger than life and just a massively influential and extremely successful series. So when I took the job I didn’t take it lightly. I knew that people were going to get on email and Facebook. They were going to say “Who is this guy?” and “What is he doing?” And it was funny. A lot of those letters happened when it was announced that I was going to be continuing Spenser, which was not too far after Bob’s death. His final novel came out — a book called Sixkill, which is a terrific book — the last Spenser that Bob wrote. And I got a lot of nasty letters about that book. They said, “If you think you could write like Robert Parker this in no way sounds [like him],” “You don’t know Spenser.” I got all that stuff.
The real surprising thing is 98 percent of the letters I get are “This character meant so much to me” and “Every year I look forward to the new Spenser novel.” “I didn’t want Spenser to go and when I heard Bob Parker had died I was heartbroken.” And so what comes around is, “I did not want to like you, but I can tell that you care about Bob Parker’s work, and you care about the character and you know the character and I appreciate that.” And I’ve got hundreds of letters like that, and that truly was not something I was expecting.
Bill’s Thoughts On Cheap Shot
Ace Atkins is the right guy to be writing Spenser novels. Or at least that’s the way he sees it. When we discussed the risks he faced in taking over the Spenser franchise after the death of its creator, Robert Parker, Atkins reported that the vast majority of people commenting on his Spenser novels had been complimentary.
The fourth Spenser novel Atkins has written is Cheap Shot, in which Spenser and his associates endeavor to help a pro football player locate his kidnapped son. Non-fictional characters such as New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick are referred to briefly. As is the case with previous Spenser novels, wisecracks fly more furiously than bullets, though there is a loud popping sound when a bad guy gets his arm twisted behind his back by Hawk, Spenser’s long-time sidekick.
I found Ace Atkins thoroughly entertaining when we discussed Cheap Shot, and fans of Spenser certainly will not be disappointed by his most recent exploits.