Ace Atkins, who was born in Troy, Ala., in 1970, bristles at stereotypes of Southerners. During a conversation at Manhattan’s Soho Grand Hotel about the seventh book in his Quinn Colson series, The Fallen (Putnam, July), Atkins recalls shocking a reporter who asked him, with an edge in her voice, if his family had fought in the Civil War. He answered that they had—in support of the Union.
That counterintuitive portrait of the South is at the heart of the Colson books, which feature the eponymous Army Ranger, who has returned from Afghanistan to his northern Mississippi home and found that, though the terrain is different, the violence is not. In The Fallen, Colson, as sheriff, deals with a rash of bank robberies as precise as the raids he conducted in Afghanistan and sums up the new and different tests he faces on the home front: “Tibbehah [a fictional Mississippi county] was maybe more of a challenge than being in the Rangers. At least with the bad guys over there, you knew where you stood. No one promised to be your friend.”
The warts-and-all Mississippi that Atkins portrays flies in the face of the adage he was taught growing up: “Don’t talk about unpleasant things.” And though The Fallen is heavily laced with humor—including an off-color political joke made by a bank robber wearing a Trump mask—it also deals with the dark subject of human trafficking.
Atkins’s path to becoming a regular on bestseller lists was anything but predictable. He’s the only three-time Edgar Award finalist to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated—the Oct. 25, 1993 issue focused on the undefeated Auburn Tigers college football team and singled out Atkins, “a senior defensive end who entered the game with three career tackles and left with two king-sized sacks.” At the time, the seeds of Atkins’s writing future were sprouting—the screenplay writing major had already completed a spy novel (unpublished).
After graduating from Auburn, Ace worked as an investigative journalist; his stint with the Tampa Tribune from 1996 to 2001 included a seven-part series that he researched for a year and a half. “Tampa Confidential” was an examination of an unsolved 1956 murder case: the death of a beauty queen whose husband was a mob attorney. Atkins came to crime journalism out of his appreciation for novels. “Some of my favorite writers—Hemingway and Chandler among many others—had been reporters,” he says. “Journalism seemed like the best place to gain some life experience and know more about the world I was writing about.”
During his time at the Tribune, Ace created the character of Nick Travers, an investigator who’d been a professional football player before becoming a jazz historian. Travers made his debut in 1998’s Crossroad Blues. In that book, he searches for a missing academic on the trail of unknown recordings a by legendary blues musician murdered outside a Mississippi juke joint in 1938. After three more Travers novels, Atkins wasn’t pleased with the series. “There was so much wrong with it, but I had also learned a lot from it,” he says. “I learned a lot of what not to do.”
Atkins shifted gears to writing about real-life historical crime, starting with White Shadow in 2006. “I wanted to get away from the stylized crime novels I was writing and write something with complete authenticity,” he says. “I wanted to give readers a chance to see how the real crime world worked. When I wrote White Shadow, based on another unsolved murder in Tampa from the 1950s, I knew I was onto something. I think I got pretty damn close to the way it was.”
That novel explored a solution given to Atkins by Capt. Ellis Clifton, the original detective who had worked the case. “Ellis and I spent countless hours on the phone looking at his old reports and reviewing interviews,” Atkins says. “He had a working theory that he couldn’t prove in court, but the pieces absolutely fit.”
In 2008, Atkins published Wicked City, then Devil’s Garden in 2009. The next and last fact-based mystery, from 2010, is the one Atkins is proudest of: Infamous, the story of George “Machine Gun” Kelly, for which he reviewed 1,000 pages of FBI notes.
But then his editor, Neil Nyren, prompted Atkins to create Colson. “Neil asked if I’d consider writing a contemporary series with a recurring character,” Atkins says. “I had also seen an incredible number of men and women coming home from the front to Mississippi where I live, and I knew who my hero would be. For that first book, I wanted something simple and straightforward. A man returns home from the war to a hometown in chaos.”
In creating Colson, Atkins wanted to “give voice to the American soldier returning home to normal life. Coming home is a story all soldiers will recognize. You meet these men and woman at the grocery store, and you can never fully understand all they’ve been through and the sacrifices they’ve made.”
Atkins says that he created his lead character along with a story arc for the series. “That was one of the things I did wrong as a young writer,” he says. “I did not know where I was headed. But with Colson and all the secrets, families, and histories of Tibbehah County, there’s a lot of ground to cover. That’s the best part of the crime novel: exploration of community, as opposed to novels that just look within.” The Quinn Colson series debuted in 2011 with The Ranger.
A year later, Atkins took on the formidable task of continuing Robert B. Parker’s well-loved Spenser series. The Parker family endorsed Atkins as Parker’s literary successor, asking only that his series contributions stay in a contemporary setting—hence the Boston PI’s use of the internet as an investigative resource. Robert B. Parker’s Lullaby (2012) was followed by five more Spenser novels, most recently Robert B. Parker’s Little White Lies (2017).
Since 2012, Atkins has produced a new Colson and a new Spenser every year. “It’s much harder to write a Colson book,” he says. “Spenser and I have been friends since I was a teenager. I know Spenser much better. I know his world, his rules, and how he will react to situations. And we both like beer, dogs, and baseball.”
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer in New York City.