Books

Ace Atkins lives in two disparate worlds in his novels

“The Innocents: A Quinn Colson novel”
“The Innocents: A Quinn Colson novel”

Ace Atkins was typing away on his computer in his home office in Oxford, Miss., when the phone rang. His relaxed voice has no trace of a Southern drawl, which was unexpected. After all, his family has roots in Mississippi and Alabama dating from when those lands “were stolen from the Indians.”

“I’ve got two weeks between book tours, so I’m trying to get some work done on the next ‘Spenser’ book (for 2017),” said the New York Times best-selling author. “Then I’ll get into the next ‘Quinn’ book. It’s work, but a lot of fun.”

Obviously, Atkins is slammed. The sixth title in his “Quinn Colson” series, “The Innocents,” was just released (Putnam, $27, 384 pages). It’s the choice in July for The Sacramento Bee Book Club. Also, his “Robert B. Parker’s Slow Burn,” the fifth entry in his “Spenser” series, was released in May (Putnam, $27, 304 pages).

After mega-selling author Parker died in 2010, his estate made a deal with publisher Putnam to keep producing three of Parker’s most popular series. Atkins was awarded the long-running Spenser books, while the “Jesse Stone” mysteries went to Reed Farrel Coleman (after Michael Brandman left the franchise) and “Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch” landed with Robert Knott.

“Reed, Robert and I are friends, and we joke that it takes three grown men to be Robert Parker for one year,” Atkins said with a laugh.

Atkins is the author of 16 novels in three crime-fiction/mystery series, and four stand-alone true-crime novelizations. He’s been nominated for multiple Edgar Awards by the Mystery Writers of America. Earlier in his career, when he worked as a journalist for the Tampa Tribune, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Under contract to write two books a year, Atkins mentally inhabits two distinctly different milieus – Mississippi for the “Colson” series, Boston for the “Spenser” series.

“I speak two languages – Southern and Boston,” he said. “Because I live here, I can slide into the Quinn books with a lot less effort because I use my own natural voice. I write Spenser in his voice and with the feel of Parker, a tricky thing.”

Atkins’ first series ran from 1998 to 2004. Its four novels centered on the character of Nick Travers, who teaches blues history at Tulane University and does detective work on behalf of his Big Easy friends. “There’s a lot of Robert B. Parker and John D. MacDonald in those early books; they were my heroes,” he said.

Mississippi mayhem

Set in rural Mississippi and featuring elements of Southern Gothic noir, “The Innocents” follows former Army Ranger Quinn Colson, now a county sheriff, as he investigates the ghastly murder of a former high school cheerleader-turned topless dancer. Quinn is joined by his deputy Lillie Virgil on a case that turns darker and more disturbing in a hurry.

“The whole idea was to create a hero for the Deep South (in the persona of) Quinn Colson,” Atkins said. “Not only does the South need one, but it’s a great way to shine a light on all the broken things that happen down here.”

Atkins calls the South “a hotbed of dysfunction, which makes it a rich place to write about,” he said. “In some ways, you think the South has made great progress, then you realize we’re not making as much headway as I wish we were. But there are a lot of good people here who stand up to this very broken system, and I’m proud of that.”

For many, reading the Quinn Colson series is akin to getting hooked on TV shows such as “Game of Thrones.”

“I’ve really been influenced by those shows with long story arcs, like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Americans,’ ” Atkins said. “In particular, I loved the way ‘Deadwood’ built one show on the next one. The unusual thing about the Quinn books is that they’re not self-contained stories, there’s an evolution of a larger story.”

Neil Nyren, associate publisher and editor-in-chief of Putnam Books, is Atkins’ longtime editor. What’s that relationship like? “It’s an incredibly smooth process,” he said. “We read the manuscript and give him some notes – increasingly fewer notes (as the Quinn Colson series progresses), because by this point we know each other’s minds.”

From the South to the East

In “Slow Burn,” the city of Boston is aflame and its up to private investigator Spenser, along with his longtime friend Hawk and his apprentice, Zebulon Sixkill, to catch a murderous firebug.

It must be a big responsibility to be Spenser’s caretaker, given that Parker was known as “the dean of crime fiction” and his trademark character starred in 40 novels from 1973 to 2011.

“I idolized Robert B. Parker, and reading him is what got me into this crazy business,” Atkins said. “I take the job really seriously. I would never continue writing a series for an author’s estate if I didn’t have a personal connection to it. Parker taught me a lot about writing, and I wouldn’t have Quinn without Spenser. I got to be very good friends with (Parker’s widow) Joan Parker before she died, and she put a lot of trust in me, so I want to do it right.”

By “sleight-of-hand,” Atkins has brought a few changes to Spenser. “When I first started, my main goal was to just write the next book that maybe Parker would have written,” he said. “Now, five books into it, there has been a subtle shift to a slightly different character than the one Bob was writing about. We have to understand Spenser is evolving into more of a 21st-century private eye, so there have been some technology shifts, like research on the internet. And I’m bringing back the danger and edge of Boston that was absent in Parker’s later books.”

How has the Spenser fan base taken all this? “Most of the fans are terrific. I’m sensitive to them, but I’m not sensitive to getting weird letters and criticism,” Atkins said.

Atkins told the story of Parker’s last Spenser novel, “Sixkill,” which “had been in the can for a couple of years” before being published posthumously in 2011.

“Some people had conflated the idea that his last book was my first Spenser,” he said. “I got nasty letters like, ‘If you think you can be Robert Parker, you’re wrong! You sound nothing like him!’ I thought, ‘If even Parker can’t be Parker, I’m really screwed.’ 

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

Ace Atkins will appear for The Sacramento Bee Book Club at 6 p.m. Thursday, July 21, in The Hive at The Sacramento Bee, 2100 Q St., Sacramento.

Tickets to the event are $20 for seven-day-a-week subscribers, $30 for general admission. Buy tickets at www.sacbee.com/beebookclub. Please bring your ticket to the event for entrance. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. Parking is free.

All proceeds benefit The Bee’s News In Education (NIE) program, bringing news and information to more than 20,000 students in the region.

Atkins will give a presentation, answer questions and sign books. Barnes & Noble will be on site, selling “The Innocents” for 30 percent off the list price (Putnam, $27, 384 pages). B&N also will sell Atkins’ “Robert B. Parker’s Slow Burn” and some of the author’s backlist and audiobooks at full price.

“The Innocents” also will be offered for 30 percent off the list price through July 21 at these bookstores: in the Sacramento area at the four Barnes & Nobles, Avid Reader at the Tower, Underground Books, Time Tested Books and Sac State’s Hornet Bookstore; in Davis at Avid Reader and UC Davis Bookstore; in El Dorado Hills at Face in a Book; and in Grass Valley at The Bookseller.

Visit the author at www.aceatkins.com. Information: 916-321-1128

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