A few months after Robert B. Parker died of a heart attack at his writing desk in January of 2010, his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, approached Ace Atkins with a proposition. Parker’s family wanted Spenser, one of the most iconic private detectives in crime fiction history, to live on; and they were searching for the right writer to continue the series. Would Ace like to audition for the role by sending in 50 sample pages?

This was not an offer to be taken lightly.

Gregory McDonald has been dead for less than three years, yet already he seems in danger of being forgotten. A Google search turns up no recent chatter about his novels, and very little since his productive life as a writer came to an end in the late 1990s.

Aside from occasional late-night cable screenings of Fletch, a 1985 Universal Pictures movie starring Chevy Chase, McDonald’s most intriguing character also seems to be fading from American popular culture.

That’s a damn shame because McDonald was a gifted storyteller who peopled his crisply-written, very funny mysteries with irresistibly quirky characters. And behind the humor, he had some serious things to say about a host of American institutions from organized religion to the press.