Ace Atkins on writing Mississippi noir in terrible times
In crime novelist Ace Atkins's fictional Tibbehah County, located in rural north Mississippi, Quinn Colson can scarcely believe it's been 10 years since he returned home from deployment as an Army Ranger in the Middle East and became sheriff.
Sometimes, Atkins can't believe it, himself.
With "The Revelators," released last month as the 10th book in the Colson series, Atkins reaches the summit of a long narrative peak where several steep and arduous trails, some of which have crisscrossed previously, now come together in dramatic fashion. The view below from the summit, if you will, reveals a bloodied, scarcely-recognizable but still-standing Jericho, Tibbehah's county seat — a community that Colson and his family, friends and colleagues have fought for as fiercely as in any battle he experienced overseas.
It's all evocatively and distinctly captured by Atkins's authorial voice, all dry-rubbed with its hints of William Faulkner, James Lee Burke and Robert B. Parker. Speaking of the latter, Atkins, who was hand-picked by the Parker estate to continue the late author's iconic Spenser books (and has done so with an uncanny fusion of stylistic mimicry and vision), will deliver his ninth in that series around Thanksgiving.
On Tuesday, Atkins I'll be interviewing Atkins — who is an old friend — when he appears virtually as the latest guest on our "Read of The Day" Book Club, presented in partnership with Bank Square Books.
In "The Revelators," Colson, recovering from near-fatal gunshot wounds suffered in an ambush by the Watchmen white supremacist group, has been illegally superseded by a "temporary" replacement appointed by a new governor. That the governor's Big Picture plans for statewide development include clandestine support of political and criminal forces who view Tibbehah County as prime real estate — and a conduit along a golden highway streamlining felonious activity from the Gulf Coast to Memphis — is not lost on Colson. Tangentially, Colson's longtime nemesis, Fannie Hathcock, who operates an extrapolating crime ring from her upstairs office in a deluxe Jericho strip joint, has gained even more power during the sheriff's convalescence.
In addition to a difficult recovery, Colson is newly married and about to become a father for the first time. His sister, who runs a ministry devoted to helping immigrant labor families, is under threat from the Watchmen and cartel crime networks who resent her efforts. And while Colson thinks it's great to see childhood friend Donnie Varner out of prison after a foolish misstep, his old pal is certainly acting in peculiar fashion.
To oversee and figure out all these things, Colson needs his job back, after which he and the trusted Boom Kimbrough and U.S. Marshal Lillie Virgil will do their collective best to restore some sort of normalcy and order to the county.
Oh, and Quinn Colson appears to be coming to HBO. A series based on the books and the characters has been confirmed, though production has been slowed by the coronavirus. Though Atkins won't be writing the show, he has seen scripts for the first season and says, "The writer — I can't say who at this point — has reached out several times and has done a terrific job of capturing the characters and the narrative. It's a real comfort to me because I've given a decade of my life to these characters."
Talking by phone from his farm outside Oxford, Atkins answered questions in anticipation of his "Read of The Day" appearance. Here are some of his comments, edited for space.
Q. In "The Revelators," a lot of long-simmering storylines are resolved. Though the series clearly isn't over, had you planned on such long-range plot complexity from the start?
A. I'd love to tell you I had this great overarching narrative all along, but I didn't. What I did know was that, while it was going to be a series with Quinn as sheriff of this rural, north Mississippi town, I knew I'd get bored just writing about one character in stand-alone adventure after stand-alone adventure. But that's about as far as I could see ahead. I liked Tibbehah County and the idea of the community as my sandbox, where I could watch it grow and change with an ensemble cast.
Q. Despite the specificity of small town life in Mississippi that gives the series so much of its character and flavor, it's not as though Jericho is a republic unto itself. It seems to evolve — or devolve — with the same societal ebb and flow as the rest of America. Is that accurate?
A. I always wanted the books to be reflective of the country. When he first took office, Quinn cleaned up the town's corruption, for example, and that made sense on a local level as he's just taken office. But things started to change. And that, for example, was when I introduced the Watchmen. At the time, it was slightly tongue in cheek. Not that there's anything funny about white supremacist groups, but at that point, these groups were emerging, and they were more or less weekend warriors who bumbled around in the woods and drank and shot guns and moaned about, "Weren't the old days great times?" Well, great for who?
And now look at the country. The fringe supremacists aren't in the woods anymore. Now, they're armed and guarding Confederate statues in town squares under their own authority. It's gotten a lot more brazen and angry. To me, "good old days" is code for putting people back in their place, and those themes have become more entrenched in the last four or five books because that's what's happening across America.
Q. You mention a tongue-in-cheek element. Your books are very dark and often violent. But there's a lot of humor, too, particularly in dialogue and in how you depict some of what we might call the Deep South Redneck. I've wondered if readers outside Mississippi think you're exaggerating, and to what effect?
A. Some of those characterizations are pretty broad, and sometimes I've wondered if I've gone too far. More and more, though, we'll watch the news and, really, people like that are everywhere. My wife Angela will turn to me and say, "You haven't gone far ENOUGH." You kind of have to laugh, but it's nervous laughter.
I interviewed Carl Hiaasen one time, and of course his crime novels set in Florida are incredibly funny. And Carl told me, "Exaggerating these people is a sharper weapon than writing newspaper stories about them." He's right. Humor and darkness are linked — and if I can get readers to think about something in a serious way by laughing about it, that's good.
Q. With the seismic shift at the end of "The Revelators," the series will be going forward with some big differences. Did you know all this was coming, or did the narrative just lead you in that direction? And IF — not to spoil anything — you had to say goodbye to a bad character, is it possible as an author to feel sadness?
A. First of all, yes, there ARE some big events in "The Revelators," and I did know for a while that this was going to be the book where a lot of things were going to come to a head. The status quo simply couldn't believably continue in my ecosystem. I'm not one of those weird writers who — (laughs) ... Well, let me say that I have ended a real go-to character who was a terrible person but had a lot of really fun dialogue. I'll miss writing that character, but it was the right thing to do as an author.
Q. There's a lot more to talk about, and we'll do so Tuesday, but one last question for now. Have real world events made it difficult to focus on writing?
A. As a former reporter, I'm sort of trained to watch the news for a living. Right now, it's particularly hard to block it all out. I was in Boston researching the latest Spenser right before the pandemic, so that was a nice break before we became homebound. And while we read books to escape, and I continue to do so, I can also escape by WRITING books. I never thought of it that way before, but it's nice to spend some time with the Spenser characters and in Boston, or to see what Quinn's up to.
If you watch
Who: New York Times bestselling author Ace Atkins
What: Discusses his latest Quinn Colson novel, "The Revelators," as a virtual guest on the latest of our "Book of The Day" Book Club in partnership with Bank Square Books
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesday
How much: The event is free and open to the public via CrowdCast Stream, but registration is required.