2 series, 2 times the fun for author Ace Atkins
Friday, August 5, 2011
ADAMSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Ace Atkins walks out of the Buford Pusser Museum with a big smile on his face and two large hands wrapped around a genuine “Walking Tall” souvenir stick.
The author of the “The Ranger” and new caretaker of Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser series has spent the last hour touring the former home of the famed but doomed small-town Tennessee lawman whose story captured the imagination of Hollywood and the nation in the early 1970s.
Atkins is on a research high as he heads to lunch at the nearby SawMeal Restaurant on a sunny, sultry afternoon. As he sits down to a club sandwich and fries, his head spins with details he’s picked up, from the day-glow green of the vintage furniture to generally unknown bits of conspiracy and gossip he sweet-talked out of an enchanted tour guide.
“I was just always fascinated with 1970s Southern action pictures,” Atkins says. “I loved those movies. They played a big role in my childhood. There was a time when the South was really cool. Burt Reynolds was the top movie star. It started with movies like ‘White Lightning’ and ‘Walking Tall’ and, it’s not a Southern movie, but ‘Billy Jack’ — those empowerment movies.”
When his editor asked him to return to hard-boiled series fiction, his mind turned again to those hallmarks of his childhood when plotting “The Ranger.” Looking back on those movies with fresh eyes, he saw something familiar — a vibe he also was picking up in the rural hill country of northeast Mississippi where he makes his home near Oxford.
“I think (they were) anti-establishment, a lot of the stuff coming out post-Vietnam,” he says. “It kind of feels like those times now. That was really a huge part of my influence and what I was thinking about when I was writing this book.”
“The Ranger” is the story of Army Sgt. Quinn Colson’s return home for his uncle’s funeral. He’s an Afghanistan-hardened special forces veteran who is cycled into an instructor’s role and isn’t sure how he feels about it. He finds his old hometown crumbling under the ravages of an unraveling economy and the darkness of meth. He suspects his uncle’s suicide is a cover up, and the ensuing events unfurl to the soundtrack of shotgun blasts and screeching rubber laid down by the black Camaro that features prominently in the plot.
It’s the kind of raw, double-fisted narrative he’ll employ in his other job, moving the Spenser series to its 40th installment and possibly beyond.
The Boston P.I. is a key figure in the booming world of crime fiction. The hard-boiled detective was as passe as wide-brimmed fedoras when Parker debuted Spenser in 1973’s “The Goldwulf Manuscript.” Parker’s scorching prose and spot-on dialogue and Spenser’s no-nonsense approach and his tougher-than-nails sidekick Hawk were a throwback to the golden age of the form. Spenser was also modern and hip and had a depth of character rarely attempted by other crime authors.
The series helped revive the genre and Spenser joined Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee in the pantheon of fiction’s great detectives.
In a sense, the 41-year-old Atkins says he’s prepared for the job most of his life and was ready when Parker’s longtime editor Chris Pepe requested 50 test pages. “She asked if I wanted his backlist to kind of prep for it, and I said, ‘Are you kidding? I’ve got them all in Mylar wrappers at my house. You’re talking to the super fan here.”
Recreating such an important character is not something to be taken lightly. It’s been done hundreds of times in the past with often checkered success, said Otto Penzler, The Mysterious Bookshop owner, editor and expert on all things hard-boiled.
“The easiest example is Sherlock Holmes,” Penzler said of the Arthur Conan Doyle creation. “Hundreds of writers have written Sherlock Holmes stories with mixed results. Some have been wonderful and some have been really pathetic. It also has happened with James Bond with again mixed results. Many people have done a great job. John Gardner’s James Bond novels are every bit as good as Ian Fleming’s — and then some later efforts haven’t been quite as terrific.”
Penzler says it isn’t often an A level author takes on the work of another A level author, which gives him hope the series will continue to be relevant. He says he’s also interested to see how a Southern writer will tackle Spenser and his hometown of Boston with its accent, attitude and urban setting.
“It’s about who Spenser is, what his philosophy is and what the style is that Robert B. Parker used,” Penzler said. “How well Ace does that remains to be seen. But he can write, he can plot, and we know that he can create good characters. But can he recreate the Spenser character? I don’t know. I’m rooting for him because he’s a wonderful writer and a wonderful guy.”
Atkins recently turned in his first draft of his Spenser debut and “Lullaby” will be released next spring, a year after Parker’s final installment “Sixkill” came out.
“It’s great. It’s really great,” Pepe said. “We’re working on polishing it, which is a pretty typical process, and he’s got it well in hand.
“He’s an established writer and he has his own voice, but it meant he had to give it a try in this other voice. There are a lot of great writers out there that couldn’t necessarily do that. But there was something in him we thought we saw and I think we were right.”
Atkins is well aware of the challenges of doing the series. He says he’s familiar with the Boston area from years spent as the son of an NFL assistant coach and scout, and loves the challenge of his dual missions.
“The fun thing about doing these two series is they are so different,” Atkins says. “I can write a traditional detective story set in Boston, a very gritty, urban environment. And then I can come and write something set in the extremely deep rural South. I think it’s going to be really fun and healthy to be able to alternate those two series.”
Atkins will be relying on his strengths as he runs these parallel paths. After graduating from Auburn University, where he played football, Atkins moved to Florida where he became a night shift reporter at the Tampa Tribune. He worked what fellow author, Auburn graduate and Tribune alum Tim Dorsey described as the “cops-general mayhem beat” while Atkins worked on his first novel, “Crossroad Blues.” Dorsey was the night metro editor and the two often talked about the craft, philosophizing about MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen while steadfastly avoiding the subject of their own work.
Atkins says he memorably advised Dorsey, author of a series that follows the adventures of zany serial killer and Floridaphile Serge Storms, against writing one of those comic Sunshine State thrillers popularized by Hiaasen and others.
“The thing is, until it gets accepted or until it comes out, you don’t want to jinx it or anything,” Dorsey said. “You hear other people say, ‘I’m working on a book,’ and he didn’t want to say that and neither did I. But we were always talking about writing and novels and this and that.”
Atkins’ book beat Dorsey’s to shelves by about nine months. Both eventually left the Tribune. But Dorsey has followed Atkins’ career with interest, watching him evolve from his first series — the Nick Travers novels — to stand-alone historic crime fiction that recreated the worlds of characters such as Fatty Arbuckle (”Devil’s Garden”) or crime-ridden Phenix City, Ala., in 1955 (”Wicked City”).
It’s Atkins’ ability to recreate a time and place that makes him a success, Dorsey says, a topic the two often discussed in the Tribune newsroom while waiting for the police scanner to squawk.
“The place and the flavor of the place really drive our books,” Dorsey said. “We both read all the Ian Fleming James Bond books, and they’re really travelogues or travel guides because he really had specific places, and has Bond ordering the drink or whatever that is the real thing at that restaurant in the European city. ... Another thing (Atkins) does really well is place you in an era. It’s not like a history book where he tells you this is what happened. It’s like you’re in a period movie where he recreates that time frame.”
Every once in a while, Atkins marvels at how far he’s come since he first found Spenser 25 years ago.
“I think probably if you’d asked me at a young age what I wanted to do, I’d say I want to grow up to be Robert Parker,” Atkins says. “But I meant it in a figurative way. I meant I want to have the type of career that Robert Parker has had and I want to write the kind of books and create something as lasting as Robert Parker has done. I admired the guy so much, it’s just a thrill to get to do that.”