Though he was born William Ellis Atkins on 28 June 1970 in Troy, Alabama, no one has ever called the author anything but “Ace.” Before he had reached age thirty, Atkins had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and published two critically acclaimed crime novels featuring the only fictional detective with a doctorate in southern studies from the University of Mississippi.
After the first of Atkins’s crime novels, Crossroad Blues (1998), was published, Kinky Friedman wrote, “If Raymond Chandler came from the South, his name would be Ace Atkins.” Indeed, Crossroad Blues and Atkins’s subsequent three novels—Leavin’ Trunk Blues (2000), Dark End of the Street (2002), and Dirty South (2004)—can be enjoyed simply as traditional detective novels, written with a keen eye for detail in language that is by turns brutal and lyrical. They are southern noir spiced with humor and unexpected plot twists involving indelible characters that are often eccentric (Cracker, an albino; the oddly endearing Elvis-wannabe hit man introduced in Crossroad Blues) and sometimes despicable (sociopath Stagger Lee; butcher-knife-wielding Annie in Leavin’ Trunk).
However, lovers of the blues and Elvis Presley—as Atkins is—can appreciate his first four novels on another level. A James Bond fan from his youth, Atkins acknowledges that Ian Fleming’s novels “were one of the reasons I became a writer” and admires Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, and Dashiell Hammett. However, Atkins also cites the influence of blues legends Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters on his work. Atkins describes his novels as “a cross-pollination of hard-boiled detective stories with southern music.”
His protagonist, Nick Travers, teaches blues history at Tulane and hangs out in the blues bar owned by his best friends, JoJo Jackson and his blues-singing wife, Loretta (who appear in all the novels). Travers’s investigations take him to the Mississippi Delta in search of nine lost Robert Johnson recordings and to Chicago’s South Side to help out an imprisoned blues singer who, like so many other Mississippi blacks, had migrated north. In Memphis and at the Tunica casinos, Travers encounters the Dixie Mafia and a forgotten and supposedly dead soul singer. The final novel returns to Louisiana and involves a teenage Dirty South rapper from the notorious Calliope housing project. Readers who go along for the ride end up sharing Atkins’s fascination with the blues, whether or not they started out that way.
Travers is also an ex-pro football player, reflecting Atkins’s own background. His father, Billy Atkins, was an All-Pro football player and later coach with the Buffalo Bills, and Ace played defensive end on Auburn’s undefeated 1993 football team.
In 2006 Atkins left the popular Nick Travers series behind and began exploring real-life crime with the publication of White Shadow, based on the 1955 murder of Tampa, Florida, crime boss Charlie Wall. The book grew out of Atkins’s five years as a crime reporter with the Tampa Tribune and his earlier year with the St. Petersburg Times. In 2000 he earned Pulitzer Prize and Livingston Prize nominations for his seven-part series, “Tampa Confidential,” on the 1956 slaying of socialite Edy Parkhill, the wife of Charlie Wall’s attorney. While conducting his voluminous research for the series, Atkins received the two-thousand-page file on Wall’s bludgeoning death.
Wall’s story and images of vibrant and violent 1950s Tampa stayed with Atkins when he left the Tribune in 2001 to move to Oxford and write fulltime. White Shadow represented the culmination of five years of work that involved revisiting court and police records, interviewing surviving observers of the 1950s scene, and even a trip to Cuba. Since the crime officially remains unsolved, Atkins wrote the story as fiction. However, he used the real names of many of those involved and made it plain who he thinks was guilty.
Based on the critical and commercial success of White Shadow, Atkins’s subsequent historical fiction novels—Wicked City (2008), Devil’s Garden (2009), and Infamous (2010)—also blended dedicated research, true crime, and reimagined characters. Among other true-to-life twists, the protagonist of Devil’s Garden is none other than noir icon and Atkins influence Dashiell Hammett, who worked as a Pinkerton detective before moving on to create characters such as Sam Spade.
Atkins returned to contemporary fiction with The Ranger (2011), which introduces Quinn Colson, an army veteran who returns from deployment to his hometown of Jericho, Mississippi. The series reflects the developmental rigor and complexities of the historical fiction novels while continuing a slight dialog with Mississippi culture, a theme that began with the Nick Travers books. Character names in the Colson series—Quinn, Caddy, and Jason—wink at Faulkner’s literary landscape redeployed in modern age noir.
In 2010, the Robert B. Parker estate selected Atkins to write new crime novels featuring the late writer’s fabled Boston detective, Spenser. Each year, Ace Atkins writes one Robert B. Parker Spenser novel and one Quinn Colson novel. He now has eight Colson books, including The Ranger (2011), The Lost Ones (2012), The Broken Places (2013), The Forsaken (2014), The Redeemers (2015), The Innocents (2016), The Fallen (2017), and The Sinners (2018), and seven Parker books, including Lullaby (2012), Wonderland (2013), Cheap Shot (2014), Kickback (2015), Slow Burn (2016), Little White Lies (2017), and Old Black Magic (2018).
Ace Atkins lives in rural Lafayette County with his family and an ever-changing pack of rescued canines.
- Ace Atkins website, http://www.aceatkins.com
- Zac Bissonnette, Boston Globe (12 May 2013)
- Susan Clifford Braun, Library Journal (January 2009)
- Dick Lochte, Los Angeles Times (1 July 2006); Kevin Walker, Tampa Tribune (7 May 2006)