Come out this Thursday night to Turnrow. Slug a shot or two and visit with crime writer Ace Atkins as he discusses the loathsome real-life dramas in his new novel, Wicked City.
For years, the crime reporter and former Auburn football star wrote dark mystery novels starring Nick Travers, a blues historian and amateur detective who rambled up and down the Delta, from New Orleans to Memphis, solving cold cases which involved obscure musicians. Just when the series was taking off, Ace changed courses and wrote White Shadow, a historical novel about real-life Sicilian and Cuban gangsters in Tampa, 1955. The novel won him raves and comparisons to some of today's best crime fiction writers.
In his new novel, Wicked City, Atkins combines both elements — 1950s true-crime noir and Southern seediness — into one depraved package. The book's main character is Phenix City, Alabama, a town once dubbed "The Wickedest City in America." Gambling, prostitution, bootlegging and all manner of crime mired what might have otherwise been an ordinary sleepy Southern town in the 1950s.
The town becomes so infested with corruption that an anti-vice league forms. They're called to action after the state's crime-fighting attorney general is gunned down in the streets, unleashing a battle described as "a Randolph Scott western, played out not with horses and Winchesters, but with Chevys and .38s and switchblades."
The novel is tough and raw, enshrouded in cigarette smoke and stinking of booze. Atkins has done his homework, lifting the veil on a scurrilous time and place, and while it may win him no friends in today's Phenix City, a community still trying to live down their notorious history, crime fans should enjoy the mood and menace of this rowdy novel.
For a multi-media experience, visit Atkins's website. He has shared some of his research in the form of photos, character descriptions, and YouTube videos of the real Phenix City. Check it out here.
While out on the road on his book tour, Ace talked to us about working on this book and his general attitude toward crime writing.
Turnrow Book Co.: What's the matter with you? Can't you write a nice story about nice people?
Ace Atkins: It’s the truth. It goes back to being a crime reporter. I also don’t care much for nice people. Nice people are boring.
TBC: But really, Phenix City is obviously a writer's dream. How did you come across the town and its history?
Atkins: You nailed it. It is a wonderful setting for a novel. I could
not have created such a place if I'd tried. I knew Phenix City from living in Alabama, only about 20 minutes away. We used to play them in high school football. But I
never knew that the town was so damned infamous until later. When I read about
it being "the wickedest city in America and being the subject of national news attention, I couldn't believe it.
The most exciting thing that happened in Phenix City when I lived in Auburn was when the
new Applebee's opened up.
TBC: Some writers, when confronted with such a wild, real-life inspiration, admit to toning it down to make it believable as fiction. Were there things about Phenix City you had to tone down?
Atkins: Nope. I didn't pull any punches with this
one. Still people will have a hard time accepting all this action — drugs and
sex and even babies for sale — happened in the heart of the Bible Belt and in
the 1950s no less. Las Vegas is Disney World compared to Phenix during its prime. While out on tour, I'm
meeting a lot of old soldiers once stationed at Ft. Benning who
used to visit there during the wild times ... they may have had to fight their
way home but they had a hell of a time.
TBC: This book and your last one, White Shadow, are true crime stories that you've turned to fiction. You seem to be forging a kind of muckraker noir. Did your journalism writing influence the style of this novel as much as crime writers you've read? Which writers inspired this direction in your work?
Atkins: Muckraker Noir. I like that. And may use it. Absolutely, my first four novels were straight Chandler-inspired detective books. A few years back I'd grown weary of writing those books, although they were great fun. And I really thought a lot about what I could bring to the table — something different — that would excite readers. So I work in this new direction as much as a journalist as a novelist.
I probably have been most inspired by the great music writer Peter Guralnick and former newspaperman Pete Dexter. I also love what Ron Hansen did with the Western. His research elevated those novels to something I'd never read before. I'm trying to work like Hansen only with crime stories. There is no reason why a crime book can't be literature. I take the form very seriously. I'm not alone, some other writers such as George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane and Richard Price — to name only a few — have done some brilliant work to elevate the crime novel.
TBC: Is your next book in this vein? Will you return to the Nick Travers novels?
Atkins: The next book is actually done and will be out in 2009. This book takes place in San Francisco in 1921 and centers on the first celebrity scandal in America, the rape/murder trial of silent film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. Today's news — Access Hollywood and the like — has nothing on the Hearst press of the time. An incredible true story.
I don't know
about Nick. He's in retirement right now, definitely a New Orleans
refugee living in the Delta. I wouldn't doubt you could catch him at Turnrow
picking up some music books or over at Lusco's with a good-looking Greenwood gal. We'll have to see when the time is right. I would love to catch up with
him and hopefully the planets will align for that to happen.
TBC: You're obviously a music lover. Who
would appear on the soundtrack for Wicked City?
Atkins: I always work with a soundtrack. I've been doing that since writing the Nick Travers stories. Without a doubt, pour yourself a tall bourbon and dust off your Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Ernest Tubb. This one is all about true 1950s Country.