Like almost everything else about Mississippi mystery writer Ace Atkins, even the name sounds made up. Born in Alabama, Atkins grew up moving constantly as the son of an NFL coach, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a defensive end for the undefeated Auburn Tigers in 1993, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for his newspaper crime reporting in Tampa. Now he writes best-selling mysteries. "Football was kind of pressed onto me," Atkins says, "so what do you do but rebel and become a writer?"
In The Redeemers, released Tuesday as the fifth installment in Atkins's best-selling Quinn Colson series, the former Army Ranger has lost his job as sheriff in hardscrabble Tibbehah County, Mississippi. But things move slowly in the Magnolia State — Colson still has his hands full fighting hoods who launder money through truck-stop strip joints and drive Econoline vans airbrushed with the likenesses of Alabama football greats. Based in Oxford, Mississippi, Atkins excels at capturing the region's lowlife dialogue while delving into its complex culture. "People who don't live here think the South is either Gone with the Wind or Mississippi Burning," Atkins says. "But it's really somewhere in between. There are some evil motherfuckers, but also a lot of crossover in music, food, and white and black culture — it all makes good fodder."
Atkins has a wayward son's wry outlook on the Deep South — he'd sworn off watching football after college until William Faulkner's niece recently took him to an Ole Miss game — that never rings false. "I ride along with local deputies for research," Atkins says, "but also spend time in the hunting and fishing section of Walmart — where I come away with 12 novels of material."
You were a national-profile defensive end and then graduated saying that you didn't want anything more to do with football. Was it weird for you because your dad had been a coach? Was it a 'rebel against your dad' kind of thing?
I think it is. Your father is not only into football, but works for the NFL for 30 years, so football was a huge part of our family. It was not a question of whether I was going to play football. Football was kind of pressed onto me. So what do you do but rebel against your dad, and become a writer? I also noticed far more longevity amongst the writers who talked to my dad. They never changed over the years. But when I got away from football, I really got away from football. My last season was great, we went out there and had a good time. But when I was done, I was done. Of course the first thing they wanted me to do when I was working for the St. Pete Times was cover football. They thought that I would be good, but I was terrible.
Why were you so bad?
I'm a terrible statistician. And I didn't have the love of it. You need to love it to cover sports.
So why did you gravitate toward the crime beat?
The crime beat is not what reporters really want to get onto — usually they're vying for features or sports — but I was interested in it. I like crime novels. I was a big Hemingway fan, and he always talked about how the best training in the world was at the Kansas City Star, chasing sirens. I thought it was a romantic place to be, to see what was going on in the city and to follow breaking news. At the time, of course, I was reading Elmore Leonard, Robert Parker, Chandler, Hammet, and all that stuff. So the majority of my career at the Tribune was covering cops.
What kind of stuff did you see?
I mean, this is Tampa. This is weird. I remember covering the carnival community, Gibsonton, where all the carnies went to retire. We had a tip that this carny guy had buried his wife in an Airstream trailer in their backyard. And the wife was actually a transsexual who had been in a girly show. So, long story short, he had killed her, and the sources on this story were like, The Monkey Woman, and I had to talk to this guy named Melvin the Blockhead, who was a professional at hammering railroad spikes up his nose. Tampa, the weirdness that was Tampa, was a terrific place to be on the crime beat because the stories were so bizarre.
What story earned you the Pulitzer Prize nomination?
It was a long piece of feature writing in 2000 about a woman who had been killed in 1956. A reporter had given me an old A section from the Tribune, 1956, and it was just this amazing narrative. You could never see anything like this anymore. Fifteen pages of coverage about a gorgeous woman, city power players, and a mob attorney. It was just something that seemed to me like out of Chandler. So for a year, in my spare time — and this didn't sit well with my editors, because it wasn't a turnaround — I looked for people who were still alive and connected to this case. It resulted in an eight-part serial that was extremely well received. And I think that's just where I was headed with journalism, which is doing a lot of narrative reporting.
So your endgame was to be a crime novelist.
I think so. I don't think that that was a very smart approach. I always go with the Han Solo quote, "Never tell me the odds."
You really have an ear for dialogue. It reminds me of George V Higgins and Elmore Leonard.
Well those guys are my heroes. They're on my Mount Rushmore. If you come to my place in Oxford you'll see a lot of Higgins, you'll see a lot of Leonard. What attracted me to their writing is that it was so authentic. It was not like reading a book; it was like the criminals I came across as a young reporter. They talked that way and acted that way. It had some authenticity. That's what I wanted to do.
Your Quinn Colson series is super-regional, set in northern Mississippi.
Yeah, and the great thing is I get to cherry pick characters here. I have an office in the square. And Faulkner used to famously say that he'd sit on the green benches of the courthouse and eavesdrop on people and come up with stories. I ride along with local deputies for research, but also spend time in the hunting and fishing section of Walmart where I come away with 12 novels of material.
The botched theft of a house safe in The Redeemers reminds me of a Coen brothers caper.
The Coen brothers, exactly, that's how real criminals act. Like in Fargo, where things just fall apart. And this story happened in Fulton, Mississippi, where a bunch of guys got together to try and rob this guy's estate. And in robbing the estate, just about everything that could've gone wrong went wrong. And that was originally what I thought about when I came across the story. Like, this is something out of the Coen brothers. Just crazy. And it's real crime. Like Elmore Leonard or George Higgins, or the people I covered in Tampa. Often the people involved in the crimes are not that bright.
I've read this genre described as redneck noir.
I call it the redneck Game of Thrones. It goes back to those gritty, realistic Southern Burt Reynolds movies of the '70s. I point all the time to that movie White Lightning, which they shot in Arkansas.
I've never seen it.
Oh, it's terrific. So 1970s. They got a camera crew and they shot it in the South. If they had a scene with a penitentiary, they'd have Burt at the state pen. It just had all this realism, with fast cars. It goes back to southern noir, like Thunder Road with the bootleggers and the cops. All that stuff just played into my psyche. I just really love it. I've heard it called hillbilly noir. I guess that's even more specific.
There's a wry sense of humor running through the book.
That's one thing I want people to know about my books. I don't write those super thriller mystery books where there's action and adventure. It's really character-driven. There is some gunplay, of course, but it's more about the characters and the Southern place that makes it worth it for me.
Colson himself is a fairly straightforward hero.
For Quinn I wanted something as simple to get into as your classic western. Quinn is not a Green Beret, Jason Bourne kind of guy. He was just a sergeant that was a US Army Ranger. He's not going to be MacGyver or anything like that. He's a flawed guy, coming home to clean up corruption in his town. He's the gunfighter coming back to his community. I wanted to write something that was true to what was happening. I was seeing a lot of people coming home from the front, and joining law enforcement or whatever, so he sort of represents that group of young people coming home to their communities and hoping to make it better.
How is the South more complicated than people think?
Well, I think that so many people who don't live here believe we're still stuck in the 1960s. And now, I can take you to parts of the city where there are those places and there are those people…
In terms of what, racism?
As far as racism, there are still forces there. But also, what people don't see in the South is how often people work together. There's such a mixed culture here. You go into a restaurant and it's black/white. You go to a job site and it's black/white. And the other thing, which I write in my own books, is you'll see mixed race children. People who don't live here think the South is either Gone with the Wind or Mississippi Burning. But it's really somewhere in between. There are some evil motherfuckers, but also a lot of crossover in music, food, and white and black culture. It all makes good fodder.