Ace Atkins: The Shameless
Where does Ace Atkins get his ideas for places and characters in his, now nine, books “starring” Quinn Colson? Right here in the mid-south, primarily north Mississippi, but also the Memphis area. It’s obvious that he’s very observant of all the “characters” he encounters – and makes note of them to include in his books.
When a renowned author comes to town, we make an effort to go see the author and hear about the latest book. Atkins was in Oxford, Mississippi at Square Books on July 9, interviewed by Jack Pendarvis, and in Memphis, Tennessee at Novel bookstore on July 10, 2019, where he was interviewed by Drake Hall, about his latest book, The Shameless, published July 9th. There were about 100 participants at the event in east Memphis, and the conversation bounced from topic to topic – each related to something mentioned in the book.
Political corruption and crime are the foci of this book, whose title refers to those who twist the truth and/or commit crimes to serve their own interests.
Here’s the synopsis of the book:
Twenty years ago, teenager Brandon Taylor supposedly committed suicide. That’s what nearly everyone in Tibbehah County, Mississippi said after his body and hunting rifle were found in the Big Woods. But now two young female New York-based podcasters come south to investigate the “cold case,” asking Sheriff Quinn Colson questions about the Taylor case – about the evidence, and where are the missing files? They want to find out who really killed Brandon Taylor.
Quinn is willing to help, but he was just a kid in 1997 when the incident happened. After all, his wife Maggie was a close friend of Brandon Taylor and her son is also named Brandon, after the deceased teen. But currently Quinn is trying to shut down the criminal syndicate that’s had a stranglehold on Tibbehah for years, trafficking drugs, stolen goods, and young women through the Mid-South. Truck stop madam Fannie Hathcock runs most of that action, and has her eyes on taking over the whole show. Another part of the syndicate is Senator Jimmy Vardaman, who’s from the old political establishment, riding on the Syndicate’s money and power – plus a hefty helping of racism and ignorance – headed for the governor’s office. If he manages to get elected, the Syndicate will be untouchable. Tibbehah will be lawless.
Quinn’s been fighting evil and corruption since he was a kid, at home or as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan and Iraq. This time, evil may win out.
Atkins’ opening quote in this book is from Robert Penn Warren in All the King’s Men:
“There ain’t any explanations. Not of anything. All you can do is point at the nature of things. If you are smart enough to see ‘em.”
Atkins has much admiration for Robert Penn Warren, and he considers Warren’s book an essential classic that he periodically re-reads. In All the King’s Men, Warren wrote about the political graft surrounding infamous Louisiana lawmaker and governor Huey Long.
Atkins dedicated this book to journalist Patsy Brumfield, “The News Queen of Mississippi,” who took him around to all the “right” places to see and hear the local politicians and “good ole boys” that are the basis for characters in this book. Patsy covers the criminal justice system and political beat at Mississippi Today. You can read her articles at: https://mississippitoday.org/author/pbrumfield/
Atkins sees a great problem these days in the lack of local newspapers that once thrived and provided a “check” on local government, going through the books and reporting on how taxpayers’ money was being spent. Having once been a reporter himself, he has great respect for reporters, especially investigators, who bring to light and to the public’s attention all that’s going on in government circles, not just the crime beat.
Atkins said folks familiar with the mid-south would certainly recognize the name Vardaman, a character in this book – a reference to the late James K. Vardaman who was Governor of Mississippi from 1904 – 1908, and was elected U.S. Senator from Mississippi in 1912. Vardaman was known for his advocacy of white supremacy, and his campaign used populism to appeal to poor whites, yeomen farmers, and factory workers.
Atkins grew up in Alabama, attended Auburn University, and after graduation from Auburn, he landed a job as a journalist in the Tampa Bay Area as a part-time stringer for the Tampa Tribune. “Working the cop beat at the Tribune introduced Atkins to a rogue's gallery of misfits, half-wits, tramps and thieves who would later populate his novels. ‘Bad guys to me are sometimes the most interesting things in these books,’ he says. ‘Coming from a background of covering law enforcement, covering the prison system, federal court and that kind of thing, they're always the most colorful characters.’”
While at the Tribune, Atkins earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for a feature series based on his investigation into a forgotten murder of the 1950s.
Then, 18 years ago, he moved to Oxford, Mississippi to take a job as a visiting professor in journalism at Ole Miss. Atkins said he never intended to stay in Oxford permanently, but that “Oxford just has a way of sucking you in.” He is still a resident of Oxford.
Atkins says a good author writes about what he knows, and that’s what makes writing enjoyable. So, many of Atkins’ interests get included in the context of his books.
Atkins told the audience that Burt Reynolds was one of his heroes and he loved the Burt Reynolds movies, such as White Lightning, Smokey and the Bandit, Gator, Deliverance. These movies appear in conversations in this book.
Another topic was football, and Atkins agreed with Drake Hall that football is definitely an integral part of southern culture. Atkins, himself, was a football player when he was a student at Auburn University, although he did not move up to the pros. That came naturally as he is the son of the late Auburn legend Billy “Ace” Atkins, the MVP of Auburn’s 1957 Championship team.
Atkins asked the audience if they’d ever been to the Neshoba County Fair. If so, they would have encountered many of the characters in his book. In addition to musical entertainment, i.e., country music, a display of cabins, arts and crafts, the Pretty Cow Contest, and car show, there are plenty of political speeches from local politicians running for office. This is a source of some of Atkins’ book material. If you haven’t been, this year’s fair is July 26 – August 2.
In addition to writing nine books in the Quinn Colson series – and now working on a tenth one – Atkins continues writing the Spenser detective series created by the late Robert B. Parker. After Parker died in 2010, the Parker estate chose Atkins to carry on the series of novels which are set in Boston. Atkins said that in Boston, he has to explain the southern characters and culture that appear in the Colson series to folks there, but in the mid-south, everybody already knows about them – no explanation necessary. When Atkins works on the Spencer books, he travels to Boston to immerse himself in that culture to portray its people, culture, and lingo accurately.
A word of warning to the potential reader: some of the characters in this book use profanity and offensive language rather frequently.
Find more information about Ace Atkins at: https://aceatkins.com.
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