Ace Atkins has gotten to be one of MysteryPeople’s good friends. Not only is he one of the best writers currently out there (Edgar nominated in the past two years), he’s a great supported of the genre, bookstores, and all around good. At 7PM, May 31st, between our annual Shiner Bock and BBQ get together, I’ll be moderating a Q&A with Ace for his signing of two new books, The Broken Places with his original series character Quinn Colson and Wonderland, his second book that continues Robert B Parker’s Spenser series. To get an idea of the discussion, here’s a quick interview we did recently.
MysteryPeople: Do you think Quinn has changed any since The Ranger?
Ace Atkins: Perhaps a bit more understanding? Ten years as a U.S. Army Ranger can harden a man. But returning home, being with his family, and seeing problems on home soil humanizes him a bit.
MP: A tornado plays a major part in The Broken Places. Since that is a disaster many have experienced and all have seen on the news, how did you approach writing it?
AA: A tornado touched down maybe a mile and a half from my farm two years ago. After tearing through a small community called Pine Flat, it skipped over to Smithville, Mississippi. The entire town of Smithville was destroyed. The story of Jericho is probably only half of what happened to Smithville. That entire town was destroyed and has yet to recover. A year later, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal published a retrospective of the tornado that included wonderfully written first-hand accounts. I owe a lot to that reporter, Kristina Goetz.
MP: In this series you tackle a subject some authors try to avoid, religion. Can you write about the South without dealing with it?
AA: I am not what I would call a religious person. But as a Southern writer, you can’t avoid religion. It’s in every aspect of Southern life, whether it should be or not. Every political campaign in Mississippi tries to show their candidate is more of a Christian than the opponent — often overshadowing the real issues. Some of the religion is true and genuine, too. And as a writer, you must write about both.
MP: Country songs and musicians, both old and new, get referenced frequently in the book. Does the form have a particular influence in this series?
AA: Music has played a huge role in my writing since my very first novel, Crossroad Blues. I’ve learned a lot about writing from musicians I admire — from Robert Johnson to Johnny Cash. When I first started writing The Ranger, I wanted it to read like/sound like a Johnny Cash ballad.
MP: One of the main characters in Wonderland is Sixkill, the Cree and PI in training who Parker introduced in his last Spenser novel. Did you feel like you had more license with this character than some of more established ones in the series?
AA: That’s a great question. Yes, in some ways I think I am able to complete the idea of a character that Parker created in his last work. There is not much to discuss about Hawk. Hawk is Hawk. And I wouldn’t try and tell you anymore about him. Sixkill has lots to tell me and readers. And is the perfect character to complement this stage of Spenser’s career.
MP: Wonderland reminded me of me of one of your favorite Spenser books, Early Autumn, in by having Spenser mentor somebody, you learn about him and his code. What did you want to get across about who Spenser is?
AA: Spenser taught Paul how to live his life on his own terms. He’s teaching Sixkill the same lessons but compounded by making a living and surviving in a violent world. One does not become Spenser or Hawk overnight. He is a work in process. Spenser is passing down his talents and skills. For him to want to work with Sixkill tells us more about Sixill than Spenser. Spenser is not a man to waste his time.
MP: After writing in the world’s of Spenser and Quinn Colson what similarities have you found in Boston and Mississippi?
AA: Ha! Actually many. Deep religion. Dirty politics. You don’t step on a man’s honor in the deep South or South Boston. Southerners and people from Boston all come from the same place pretty much.
Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series has gotten to be one of my current favorites, right up there with Walt Longmire and Moe Prager. Following the army ranger-turned-sheriff of his hometown of Jericho, Tibbehah County, the books are influenced by the Southern set action films of the Seventies that starred the likes of Burt Reynolds, Joe Don Baker, and Bo Svenson, but updated for today. In his latest, The Broken Places, he aims for an all out blockbuster.
The book starts out with an exciting prison break, partly on horseback. The three prisoners are out to get back the money from the armored car robbery they pulled; their destination, Jericho.
It isn’t as if Quinn has enough trouble. Jamey Dixon, a convicted murder has returned to town after pardoned by the outgoing governor, setting up a church in town. Ophelia, the daughter of one of his supposed pressures Quinn to put back in prison. As much as he’d like to, the situation becomes complicated when Dixon becomes involved with his sister Cady. Dixon is also the reason those convicts are headed to Jericho.
What comes across in this book is Atkins skilled hand at delivering a strong piece of entertainment. Fans of the television show, Justified, will love the convicts as well as Quinn’s nemesis, town kingpin Johnny Stagg. Their dialogue is ripe with humor, Southern homilies, and menace, often all at the same time. Atkins gives us some well placed action set pieces. A standout is a chase on four wheelers through the woods. If it wasn’t enough, we even get a tornado. None of this feels like an onslaught, there is a flow to all of it. Even moments with Quinns’s friends and family are weaved in for a perfect balance of character, plot, and honest looks at faith and redemption. By the end it has a feel of a solid action film crossed with a Johnny Cash song.
The Broken Places is further proof of Atkins talent. He takes to a world off a rural route that sits between a classic hard boiled novel and the realities of current small town America, breathing life into it with detail and dialogue. It’s a story of white hats and black hats, but everybody’s brim is a bit worn and dirty. The Broken Places is escapism at it’s smartest.
This Hard Word is all out, including a conference call-in from Ace for the discussion and a viewing of Phenix City Story, the Phil Karlson directed movie inspired by the same events. We’ll be meeting at 7PM, Wednesday, May 29th. Copies of Wicked City are 10% off for those who attend.
The Mystery Writers Association Of America released their nominees for the Edgar Awards this year. We want to give a special congratulations to our friends Ace Atkins, who’s in the running for Best Novel with The Lost Ones, and Craig Johnson, whose series inspired the TV show Longmire, which has had its pilot nominated for Best Screenplay.
You can see all the nominees here: http://www.theedgars.com/nominees.html
Congratulations to our friend Craig Johnson. Longmire, the show based on his Walt Longmire novels, was renewed for a second season after four episodes of the first one. Here’s Craig at the Longmire Season One wrap party celebrating with stars Robert Taylor and Lou Diamond Phillips. Somebody should tell Mr. Phillips he doesn’t know where that writer’s been.
With his Edgar nominated The Ranger, Ace Atkins gave us Quinn Colson, an Afghanistan war vet who returns to Mississippi ready to clean it up by any means necessary. He was was an updated version of a hero that walked off a seventies southern drive-in screen. Atkins mixed subtle social commentary with pulp crime and a touch of classic western themes, creating some of the smartest escapism between two covers. With his follow up, The Lost Ones, he tells us the fun’s just started.
We now find Quinn as a newly elected sheriff of Tibbehah County, dealing with a black market baby operation run by a Mexican cartel. The cartel is being supplied with guns, thanks to recurring villain Johnny Stagg (picture a more dangerous version of Boss Hogg with less charm). Operating between Stagg and the cartel is Donnie Verner, an old running buddy of Quinn’s who’s back from the war and looking for action.
One can argue that the title refers to the returning soldiers catching up to a world that kept turning when they left. Quinn sees Donnie as someone he could have been if the wind blew him a different way. He also shows understanding for his one-armed buddy Boone who is getting into drunken brawls (and winning) by getting Boone a steady job and purpose. Quinn himself has to adjust to law enforcement being less direct than his military background. They are all three looking for the feeling and odd clarity combat gave them.
While Atkins incorporates those themes, as well of issues of family, he never forgets he’s writing a two-fisted hero novel. We get realistic and harrowing shoot-outs, a gorgeous federal agent, a rogue gallery of villains that can be as funny as they are formidable, several blues and Elvis references, and banter Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed would have loved to have had. It’s thrilling and rare to read a book where you feel the joy the author had in writing it. When Donnie uses an eighteen-wheeler for some gear-shifting action, I knew Ace had to be smiling while he was hitting the keys.
Ace Atkins has a talent for creating worlds. His Tibbehah County grows in color with each book. It’s a fun place to visit, just always be ready to duck.
MysteryPeople welcomes Ace Atkins to BookPeople Today, Wednesday, June 6 at 7pm to speak about and sign The Lost Ones, as well as his new Spenser novel, Lullaby.
Tight prose style – check
Well executed fist-fights and shoot-outs – check
Smart aleck asides – check
Bad guys, both honorable and heinous – check
Sexy lived-in relationship with Susan Silverman – check
Great banter with Hawk – check
Macho yet sensitive knight errant of the streets back in prime – double check
In Lullaby, Ace Atkins has brought back everything we love about Robert B. Parker’s Boston P.I. Spenser, and he makes it look seamless and easy. Friends of Ace’s were excited when Parker’s widow, Joan, picked him to continue the series. I can’t think of a bigger fan or a better author with the necessary skills to pull it off. Ace gives us Parker’s voice without being a mimic.
Lullaby starts with chivalry. Spenser is hired by a fourteen year-old, foul-mouthed Southie girl to find out who really murdered her mother four years ago. In true Spenser form, he charges her a dozen doughnuts. The case puts him smack the middle of an alignment of organized crime, involving one of his major nemeses, The Broz family.
Atkins has a knack for creating worlds both real and legendary, many times overlapping the two. He gives us a feel for Boston that Parker’s sparse approach sometimes failed to convey. Ace even lifts part of infamous Southie gangster Whitey Bulger’s true story for part of the plot. It’s the world of Spenser he truly brings out with a twist, bringing out classic cops and crooks like Captain Martin Quirk and Vinnie Morris. Hawk is his usual bad ass and we learn something about his past. Through them and the changes of Boston scenery, he gives pathos to both heroes and villains trying to find footing in changing times.
And another thing- Food. Atkins has Spenser cook up a Andouille sausage and grits recipe I can’t wait to try out.
Ace Atkins takes the reins of the Spenser series with self-assured ease. He’s not out to prove anything, just to tell us a solid hard boiled tale with a hero many readers love. He not only gives us a voice that reminds us of the kind of book Parker wrote in his prime, like Judas Goat or Early Autumn, he also proves he’s the right man for the job. I’m looking forward to seeing him put Spenser and Hawk back on the streets next year.
MysteryPeople welcomes Ace Atkins to BookPeople to speak about and sign Lullaby and his new Quinn Colson novel The Lost Ones on Wednesday, June 6, 7p.