A few weeks ago, I interviewed a ghost. What actually happened was I called my old friend, the novelist Ace Atkins, whom I hasten to point out is very much alive and doing well, thank you.
In fact, Atkins, the author of 11 novels including last year's "The Ranger," a new and excellent series starring Quinn Colson, an ex-Army Ranger turned sheriff of a small Mississippi County, might be described as doing exceedingly well.
In addition to the Colson projects, his earlier Nick Travers series and four tremendous historical crime novels, Atkins was chosen last year by the estate of the late, great Robert B. Parker to carry on that writer's magnificent and legacy-carving catalog of Spenser novels.
Parker passed two years ago and his final Spenser novel, "Sixkill," came out in May 2011.
The first Spenser adventure to be penned by Atkins is called "Lullaby," and it's due May 1 from Putnam. In an intriguing bit of publishing strategy, Atkins' second Colson book, "The Lost Ones," will also come out from Putnam that month.
While guest hosting for Lee Elci on his morning drive radio show for WXLM, I called Atkins and we spoke at length about what it's like to be the new voice of Spenser, and that's what I meant when I said was talking to a ghost. Not a ghost writer - that's completely different - but as the dude trusted with metaphorically channeling the spirit of Parker, as it were, from beyond the grave.
While millions of Spenser fans are delighted the series will continue, there's no shortage of readers who are nervous as to whether Atkins - or anyone, for that matter - can do justice to Parker's skill.
Maybe it's just because I know Ace, and loved his work before I met him and learned what a fine person he is, but I think he's a terrific choice.
Part of it is simply that he's such a fan and student of Parker. In conversation, his thoughtful awareness of and tangible excitement over the magical opportunity he's been given was fun to hear.
To that extent, Ace is a bit like T. Scot Halpin. Fans of The Who might remember the story of Halpin, who was a 19-year-old fan when the band played San Francisco's Cow Palace in 1973. Drummer Keith Moon, waxed on downers and brandy, passed out twice and was carried offstage, causing Pete Townshend to ask over the microphone if there were any "good drummers" in the crowd.
Halpin got up onstage and finished the set with the band in dazzling fashion.
Of course, the bestselling Atkins is hardly an unknown teenager, but the idea of any writer getting the chance to hop behind the literary drum kit of Spenser is the chance of a lifetime. He credits Parker's widow, Joan, and the family for making him feel welcome and worthy.
He also said the biggest challenge was in assimilating the rhythm and prose style of Parker's work. "He could say in one sentence what it would take every other writer pages to do - just perfect - and that's just not easy to pull off. To read his prose is like listening to music," Atkins said.
There's also the issue of geography. Atkins is from Alabama and lives in Mississippi - and Spenser is inextricably tied to Boston. No problem, Ace said. The son of an itinerant pro football coach who crisscrossed the country with his family, Ace is also a dedicated traveler. His on-site research for books set in Chicago, California, Memphis and New Orleans, to name a few, bleed cultural and regional authenticity with every page.
Finally, I asked Atkins how he was selected by the Parker estate and, with the sort of deadpan wit you'd expect of Spenser or Hawk, he explained, "Basically, they assembled all of the younger generation of crime writers in a one room - and the one who was able to claw his way out, got the job. It was me."