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Atkins, for hire, helps keep detective ‘Spenser’ on the case

Robert B. Parker’s widow, Joan Parker, says author Ace Atkins, who recently visited her in her Cambridge home, has just the right touch to take over the “Spenser’’ detective series.

Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff

Robert B. Parker’s widow, Joan Parker, says author Ace Atkins, who recently visited her in her Cambridge home, has just the right touch to take over the “Spenser’’ detective series.

It wasn’t just the detective sitting in his office at the corner of Berkeley and Boylston, munching on a doughnut and “drinking coffee with a little milk and sugar,’’ that got to Joan Parker.

Sure, she loved the first paragraph of the new manuscript. It was vintage Robert B. Parker, describing his alter ego, the iconic detective Spenser, and Joan had always been her husband’s first reader and biggest fan.

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But there was also the author’s name: Ace Atkins. To Parker’s widow, that was an omen. When she’d met him in college, her husband-to-be was known as Ace Parker, a nickname that arrived in prep school and stayed for decades.

When Robert Parker suffered a fatal heart attack at age 77 in January 2010, his longtime publisher, Putnam, didn’t want to see the best-selling Spenser series die with him, nor did his family. Parker, a prolific writer, had left three books in the pipeline. But after that, who would - who could - pick up the mantle?

Putnam put out the word to some of its own authors, asking for 50 pages of a new Spenser novel. A year ago, Parker’s longtime editor, Chris Pepe, told Joan they had the right man: Atkins, who had already written nine crime novels.

“Lullaby,’’ the 40th Spenser novel and the first one not written by Parker, is due out May 1. At the top of the dark blue cover are large letters, “Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby.’’ At the bottom, in smaller print: “A Spenser Novel by Ace Atkins.’’

Since the first Spenser book, “The Godwulf Manuscript,’’ appeared in 1973, the series has been hugely popular, with millions of copies sold in the United States and at least 22 other countries. A made-for-TV series starring Robert Urich as the street-smart, wise-cracking Boston detective with a soft spot for underdogs ran from 1985 to 1988.

‘For me, it was the right character at the right time, and just what I needed. I started reading voraciously.’

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Keeping a popular series alive after the author’s death is not uncommon. After Ian Fleming died, successors took over his James Bond series. When Robert Ludlum died in 2001, his character Jason Bourne continued with Eric Van Lustbader. Others took over for V.C. Andrews, Michael Crichton, and Dick Francis.

In fact, Parker himself did exactly the same thing. Three decades after his hero Raymond Chandler died in 1959, Parker finished “Poodle Springs,’’ the Philip Marlowe book that Chandler had started, and then wrote another.

Parker’s own Jesse Stone series, about a small-town police chief, has already been continued by Michael Brandman. “Killing the Blues’’ made the New York Times bestseller list when it was published last September.

But Spenser is Parker’s most famous creation. Atkins is under contract for three Spenser books and has already started writing the second, “Wonderland,’’ set in Revere, about casino gambling.

Ace Atkins admired the late Robert B. Parker.

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Ace Atkins admired the late Robert B. Parker.

For his widow, reading the first pages of “Lullaby’’ was bittersweet. “It was completely mind-blowing,’’ says Joan Parker, 79. “It was so the voice of Bob.’’

Parker’s books were usually dedicated to his wife, and “Lullaby’’ is dedicated “to Joan, always the inspiration.’’ The book is about a tough teenage girl in the Mary Ellen McCormack projects in South Boston who hires Spenser to find her mother’s killers.

In town recently for a meeting with Joan Parker, Atkins is sitting with her in her late husband’s cozy home office near Harvard Square.

Glancing at the shelves filled with Parker’s 70 books - and at the desk where he worked, and died - Atkins is clearly moved. “It‘s a very surreal thing, even being in this office,’’ he says.

He and Joan Parker first met a year ago, in that office, when she and the couple’s sons, Daniel and David, approved his hire. Joan was impressed by his knowledge of each Spenser book. She had been reminiscing about a scene in one of the books based on a cocktail party the couple had once attended.

“I couldn’t remember the name of the book, and Ace said, ‘God Save the Child.’ That was overwhelming to me,’’ she says.

Atkins interjects: “That’s a great scene. It really skewers the suburban lifestyle.’’

When Putnam offered to send Atkins some of the Spenser books for his research, there was no need. He already owned all of them, most first edition.

At first glance, Ace Atkins couldn’t be more different from Bob Parker. He’s 41 and lives on a farm 20 miles outside Oxford, Miss. But his back story is intertwined with Parker’s, and it is a story that Joan loves to hear, and to tell.

When Atkins was 21, his father died, at age 58, of a heart attack. Atkins was a sophomore playing football on scholarship at Auburn University. The death of his father, who was an NFL scout, was devastating. “I was absolutely lost on all fronts,’’ says Atkins, whose real name is William, though he has always been called “Ace,’’ like his father.

Upon his father’s death, he picked up “The Godwulf Manuscript’’ at a second-hand bookshop and a love affair was launched. It was really more a virtual mentorship, with Parker, via Spenser, giving life advice to the lonely young man.

“For me, it was the right character at the right time, and just what I needed,’’ says Atkins, whose close-cropped hair and football build give him an all-American look. “I started reading voraciously and went through the whole list.’’

At the time, he was dealing with Auburn coaches who “were driving me nuts, trying to push me off the team, so that I would lose my football scholarship.’’ Spenser, Atkins notes, also hated dealing with his coaches at Holy Cross.

Atkins says Spenser taught him to question authority, sometimes irreverently, introduced him to classic jazz, cooking, and Sam Adams Winter Lager, as well as “doughnuts, beer, and dogs, the important stuff that makes life worth living.’’

The main message, for him, was to be an individual and self-sufficient. “Spenser became a mentor to me as I was going into adulthood,’’ he says.

The gritty books led Atkins to crime reporting at the Tampa Tribune. He asked his future wife, also a reporter, on a first date when they were both were covering a kidnapping. In 2001, Atkins left journalism to write mysteries; his 11th crime novel, “The Lost Ones,’’ comes out May 31. He had sent his first one to Bob Parker, describing what Spenser had meant to him, and the two corresponded briefly.

While Robert Parker was alive, the family never discussed anyone taking over his writing. “He had promised us he would live to be 100,’’ Joan says.

The Parkers had a unique living arrangement: He lived downstairs, she upstairs, each with a separate kitchen and bathroom. It was a way to preserve their marriage after a separation, and it worked well, she says. Last September, when she was diagnosed with lung cancer, she moved downstairs. She is undergoing chemotherapy but continues the workouts that have always sustained her.

It is clear that she dearly misses her husband of 53 years. Along with his best friend, Mel Farman, she helps maintain his Facebook page, which has 3,600 friends. Fans post regularly, and Joan recently put up a photo of Daniel’s year-old son - her first grandchild - who is named Spenser.

For her, continuing her husband’s series was both pragmatic and emotional. “Spenser was a cash cow,’’ she says. “And we felt that Bob would want to see Spenser live on.’’

Parker and Putnam declined to discuss the financial aspects of the arrangement. Atkins would only say that he “was hired by and works for the Parker family.’’

“I’m like Spenser,’’ he says. “I’m a hired gun.’’

On his recent trip to Boston, Atkins spent some time at Wonderland and Suffolk Downs, gathering material for his next Spenser novel. “Bob Parker would have picked up the newspaper, read about it [casinos], and said, ‘This is where I’m going next.’ The family wanted me to make sure that Spenser stays contemporary,’’ he says.

He also wants to make sure that Spenser stays Spenser, the same character fans have long embraced, down to the last detail like his beloved chocolate doughnuts and Scotch.

Joan nods as he speaks but tells him he should relax. “I think as the books go on,’’ she says, “that you can let your voice show without feeling that weight of Parker.’’

The Parker fan base remains large and loyal, and though many are looking forward to the new book, others question it. “I don’t know if I could bring myself to read a book that was written by someone other than Robert Parker, knowing he didn’t write it but it has his name on it,’’ a woman from Maine posted on Facebook.

But another longtime fan, Jim Kennedy, says he is looking forward to the new Spenser books.

“I think it’s a risk at one level, but I think it’s certainly a risk worth taking,’’ says Kennedy, who grew up in Haverhill and lives in Marin County, Calif., where he is senior vice president of Pixar. “I think the series is in good hands and stands a good chance of being successful. The characters are indelible characters and very vibrant, and they still have a life to them, even though Bob Parker is gone.’’

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.
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