One of the most prolific writers of modern times was the “dean of American crime fiction” Robert B. Parker, who died in 2011. Among his vast bibliography is a trio of uber-popular series: “Spenser,” “Jesse Stone” and “Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch.”
In 2012, the Parker estate made a deal with publisher Putnam to continue those franchises, awarding them to three veteran writers. Ace Atkins has written four “Spenser” books, with a fifth due in 2016. Robert Knott’s three “Cole-Hitch” installments will be followed next year by a fourth. Michael Brandman wrote three “Jesse Stone” mysteries before being replaced by Reed Farrel Coleman, author of 23 novels including the recently concluded Moe Prager P.I. series.
Coleman, a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, is under contract for four “Jesse Stone” novels. His second, “Robert B. Parker’s The Devil Wins,” will be out Sept. 8 (Putnam, $27, 342 pages). In it, Jesse and his deputies must solve four gruesome murders.
In his younger years, the Jesse Stone character was a Triple-A star shortstop destined for major-league baseball when an injury ended his dream. Later, alcohol abuse ruined his second career as an LAPD detective.
Parker wrote nine “Jesse Stone” mysteries, made into eight TV movies with Tom Selleck as the police chief of small-town Paradise, Mass. A ninth, “Lost in Paradise,” is due to air on the Hallmark Movies & Mysteries channel this fall.
I talked with Coleman by phone from his home in Lake Grove, N.Y., “a town with no lake and no grove,” he said.
Q: Did you know Robert Parker?
A: I met Bob casually at (author events) at a bookstore in Cambridge.
Q: How did you become Jesse Stone’s caretaker?
A: Apparently I was on a list of one (to resume the series). They didn’t just hand me the job, though. I had to discuss a plot and write a 50-page sample. They loved it and gave me the contract. (When) somebody hands over a franchise to you, you’ve got to be grateful and honored.
Q: You’re an A-list mystery writer, but surely the association with the Parker legend is great exposure.
A: It really helps a career to inherit a million fans.
Q: What was the most challenging part of transitioning from Moe Prager to Jesse Stone?
A: Moe was a guy who wore his heart on his sleeve. The only thing Jesse wears on his sleeve is his sleeve. Jesse expresses his feelings through action, whereas Moe expressed his by expressing them. (Also) I had to go from writing intimate first-person to third-person. Since it’s in third-person, I don’t have to sound like (Parker) as long as I’m true to his characters. I like to think I have the capacity to be more than a one-trick pony, although my wife would disagree.
Q: You must have felt some weight when you assumed the series.
A: I could have paralyzed myself thinking about it, so I tried not to worry too much. I had to find a way to make the character mine, and Jesse’s baseball injury was it. Bob never really talked much about the regret that followed it, so that was my way in. We all struggle with something, and Jesse happens to struggle with alcohol. Regret and struggle are part of what makes us human. In this regard, they also make Jesse relatable to readers.
The second thing I had to figure out was if I was going to imitate Bob. My friend Tom, who owns every recording Elvis Presley ever made, said something that made a lightbulb go on in my head. He said, “I have seen the very best of the Elvis impersonators, and there’s one thing they can’t do – something new.” That answered the question.
Q: Did you confer with Ace Atkins, who was already writing the “Spenser” series?
A: Ace was very helpful, and he has a much harder job than I have. (Parker) wrote 40 “Spenser” books, so Ace can’t get anything wrong about Spenser’s past or the city of Boston, and he has no leeway with Spenser’s (first-person) voice. My books take place in a make-believe town, so I have a lot of room to operate. It allows the fans to give me a break.
Q: Do you envision Tom Selleck when you write Jesse?
A: I don’t think of Jesse that way, but Bob did. A close friend of his told me that Bob got really choked up the first time he saw Tom Selleck as Jesse Stone because he thought, “That’s my character.”
Q: Let’s say that Jesse Stone and Spenser meet for dinner. What happens?
A: Spenser orders, because he knows everything about everything.
Q: What’s the next Jesse novel?
A: “Debt To Pay” will be out (September 2016). It features the return of Mr. Peepers (the psychotic assassin) from “Blind Spot” (Coleman’s first Jesse Stone novel). His wounds have healed and now it’s time for payback.
Q: You’ve also started a new P.I. series, debuting with “Where It Hurts” in January.
A: Putnam wanted me to do something of my own. Gus Murphy is a retired cop whose son dies suddenly. The family is blown apart. Two years later, he’s still lost. Then he catches a murder case and comes out the other side of his grief. I’m on page 112 of the sequel. It’s good to be busy.