Ace Atkins has new novel, ‘The Ranger’; next, he takes on Robert B. Parker’s Spenser

By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
In Print: Sunday, June 12, 2011

When Ace Atkins sits down to write a book, he has a lot of voices whispering in his ear.

With his new novel, The Ranger, Atkins says, he was shooting for “almost a Chandler-Faulkner hybrid,” a salute to the influence Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner have had on him as a writer.

He hit the target, crafting a dark, headlong crime story set in the Mississippi hill country and teeming with corrupt officials, murderous meth dealers and Southern femmes fatales. Trying to make sense of the chaos is U.S. Army Ranger Quinn Colson, freshly back from Afghanistan to his hometown for the funeral of his uncle, the county sheriff.

“I wanted to write a modern take on that soldier returning home,” Atkins says, “which is a story as old as The Odyssey.”

His next novel, coming in spring 2012, will be dominated by a single voice: that of Robert B. Parker, author of more than 60 books, among them the hugely popular Spenser series. Parker died last year, and in April, Putnam (which is both Parker’s and Atkins’ publisher) announced that Atkins had been chosen by Parker’s family to continue the series.

“It was an eerie thing, starting at page one with Spenser with his feet up on the desk,” Atkins says, “but I was confident I could get his voice.” Parker, he says, “led me to the kind of books I write, led me to Chandler and (Dashiell) Hammett. He was my literary idol.

“I go back now and read my early books, and I can see how much I stole from him.”

Those early books were a series of four crime novels set in New Orleans and featuring musicologist and amateur sleuth Nick Travers. Atkins began writing them while he was a reporter — he worked at the St. Petersburg Times and at the Tampa Tribune, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles on a cold-case murder.

The Travers books did well enough to allow Atkins, 40, to switch to fiction writing full time 10 years ago. But, he says, “I wrote myself into a corner with those books. I think they were way too niche oriented,” with their focus on the history of blues music.

His next four books were historical fiction based on true crimes. The first, White Shadow, was a riveting, atmospheric tale about the 1955 unsolved murder of Tampa socialite turned gangster Charlie Wall. Atkins followed that with Wicked City, about gang warfare in Phenix City, Ala., dubbed “the wickedest city in America” in the 1950s; Devil’s Garden, about the sensational 1921 trial of movie star Fatty Arbuckle; and Infamous, about genial Depression-era bank robber George “Machine Gun” Kelly.

“When you write about true events, true people, you have to get yourself as the author out of the picture as much as possible,” Atkins says. “It was much more intriguing, much more challenging to approach these stories as a reporter.”

He wasn’t even considering a return to writing series novels, he says, when his longtime editor at Putnam, Neil Nyren, suggested he do it. “He edits a lot of series writers I really respect — Robert Crais, John Sandford, Randy Wayne White. If a guy like that suggests it, you consider it.”

Atkins, who lives with his family on a farm outside Oxford, Miss., had been thinking about developing a character “that you would expect to see around Oxford, a real, authentic person, a completely different person from me.”

He quickly came up with Quinn Colson, who brings his special ops training, take-no-prisoners attitude and wider worldview back to his troubled hometown of Jericho. Atkins says that Colson is a character “with a lot of stories to tell” — essential for a series.

One problem: “I don’t know much about being a soldier.” But as he was developing the character, he got what its writer called “the only fan letter you’ll probably get from Camp Phoenix, Afghanistan.”

U.S. Army Col. George Reynolds had just finished reading Devil’s Garden and wanted to know if Atkins would autograph a book plate for him. “He said he’d pay the postage. I thought, you’re in Afghanistan, I’m in an air-conditioned office at home. I sent him a signed first edition.”

Reynolds, now retired, turned out to be “a serious student of crime fiction,” and the two became friends. When Atkins told him about the proposed series, Reynolds said, “I know the perfect guy.” He introduced the author to a Ranger (Atkins identifies him only as Jason because of his special ops background) who provided him “a wealth of information” in interviews.

The Ranger begins with Quinn driving along a lonesome road in Mississippi and coming upon a young, pregnant woman named Lena who has walked all the way from Alabama to find her baby’s father. Anyone who has ever read Faulkner’s Light in August will hear the bells ringing. Quinn Colson, his distant daddy, Jason, and wild-child sister, Caddy, will ring up the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!

Atkins says he’s always bemused when people ask him what it’s like being a mystery writer and living in Faulkner country — the great author lived in Oxford for most of his life.

“I tell them one of my favorite crime writers of the 20th century was William Faulkner. Sanctuary, Light in August, the Gavin Stevens stories — those are mysteries.”

Atkins says Faulkner’s personal library in his Oxford home, Rowan Oak, “has dozens and dozens of crime novels. And then there’s that crossover between Chandler and Faulkner.” During his short sojourn in Hollywood, Faulkner co-wrote the screenplay for the 1946 film of Chandler’s first novel, The Big Sleep, which was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

Chandler, of course, is also a link to Parker. Atkins says, “Bob’s voice was so incredibly influenced by Chandler, especially the early books. So my own books were influenced by both Parker’s voice and Chandler’s voice. I spent a long time learning how they that rhythm and Bob’s wonderful way with dialogue.”

All that stood him in good stead when, last fall, his agent told him Parker’s widow and sons were interested in continuing the Spenser series if they could find the right author. “She asked if I would do a submission, and I said you bet. So I wrote 50 pages, picking up from where Sixkill (Parker’s last Spenser book) ends.”

He turned it in and went back to work on the sequel to The Ranger. In December, he got the verdict: “The Parker family was extremely, extremely enthusiastic. They unanimously chose me. So, I put down the sequel to The Ranger and went immediately back to those 50 pages.” He completed the Spenser book (its title is still under wraps) in May.

Ideally, Atkins says, he would like to publish a new Spenser book every spring, a new Ace Atkins book every summer. “That would be a lot of fun.”

Writing the 40th Spenser novel, he says, “felt like I was coming full circle. It was my 10th novel, and having been so influenced by Bob, it was great to be writing it.”

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