Ace Atkins: mystery's man of the blues
Excerpt from the interview by James Clar in the December/January 2007 issue of Mystery News
Ace Atkins can write, and I mean really write! His prose possesses the lyrical power of James Lee Burke (one of his heroes) combined with the in-your-face, no-holds-barred style of James Ellroy. As a former crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune, Atkins knows of what he speaks when he probes the dark heart of the new South in novels like his latest, White Shadow ( 2006), based on the real-life and as yet unsolved murder of Charlie Wall, king of the South Florida rackets in the 1940s and 1950s. Born in Alabama and a member of the undefeated 1993 University of Auburn football squad, Atkins is probably best known for his series fiction featuring Nick Travers, ex-New Orleans Saint turned professor of blues history at Tulane. In a wide-ranging conversationthe flow of which I attempt to recreate in what followsAce talked about the character of Nick Travers, his own love for the blues as well as his latest writing projects. Proving to be the consummate Southern gentleman, Atkins gracious and expansive responses shed light on the future direction of his work as well as on how he sees that work in the larger tradition of Southern noir fiction...
From the start, Ive been interested in the correlation between hard-boiled prose and classic blues music. For me the style and artistry of blues masters Son House and Robert Johnson really parallel the works of Hammett and Chandler. Not only in the subject matter hard-living, hard-drinking, death, murder, two-timing womenbut also in that clean, sharp, spare writing Somewhere in the process, these two worlds just merged. But I dont think I was all that conscious of the blues/musical journey when I wrote Crossroad Blues. I really just wanted to write a modern Hammett-type story centering on the dark, gritty death of Robert Johnson. But once I thought about a sequel, I thought about the route of the blues both geographically along Highway 61which runs from New Orleans to the Delta to Memphis to Chicago, Nicks turfbut also historically, with the evolution of early blues to urban blues to soul to eventually rap.
Atkins two careers, as it were, come together in his latest work, White Shadow. For my money, this is his best novel to date I was blown away by it. I thought that all the elements that had made his earlier fiction so good were polished, raised to an even more impressive level and incorporated into this book. In it, he abandons Nick Travers and heads off in an entirely new direction.
First off, thank you. I knew White Shadow had unlimited potential as a true story and I believed I was finally confident enough to take on the project. Id known the story for years and wanted to make it a novel. But my previous editor and agent werent really interested. They thought of it more of a personal project to me and that my future for the next ten years centered on the Nick Travers stories. But to be honest, I think Id taken those stories as far as I could go. They were tremendous fun to write but certainly in a mold and form familiar to crime readersall of us like to mimic Chandler. I knew White Shadow was the best story I could tell. And I also knew that many of
the actual people involved in the story werent getting any younger. (I had two of the detectives who worked the case as story consultants.) I also had moved away from Tampa and was far enough removed from the city that now I could sit down and write about all those old secrets Id learned as a young reporter. I also had developed a kind of longing for a city that I had considered my ownI think cops and reporters have this feel for the city they coverand it was my kind of violent love letter back to Tampa.
The story behind the murder of Charlie Wall, the White Shadow, is certainly compelling and dramatic. Obviously the authors solution to the crime, which took place in 1955 and which is still unsolved, is fictional. Given the nature of the case, one cant help but wonder how closely Atkins stuck to the facts in his reconstruction of the crime and its aftermath.
To find out, read the complete interview in the December/January 2007 issue of Mystery News