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Former Tampa author Atkins has big gumshoes to fill

Special correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 05:07 PM

Crime novelist Ace Atkins straddles two worlds.

One is in the rural South where fictional sheriff Quinn Colson brings law and order to the Mississippi backwoods. The other is on the mean streets of South Boston, home of tough-guy Spenser, the one-named private eye created by the late Robert B. Parker.

"I spend part of the year in Spenser's world and then I switch to Quinn's world," says Atkins, who is coming to town Thursday. He stops at Inkwood Books in Tampa and Haslam's Book Store in St. Petersburg.

"I love coming back to Tampa; it's where I started writing my novels," he says in a telephone interview.

The 41-year-old author, who lives near Oxford, Miss., already had his own top-selling series of detective novels when he was hand-picked to take over the successful Spenser series following Parker's death from a heart attack in 2010.

Atkins, a former Tampa Tribune reporter, appears to have stepped into Parker's gumshoes without missing a beat.

"Robert B. Parker's Lullaby,'' the 40th Spenser novel and the first not written by Parker, debuted in May to critical acclaim and a No. 6 spot on the best-seller list.

Also debuting in May, "The Lost Ones" is Atkins' second novel featuring Mississippi Sheriff Quinn Colson. The first one, "The Ranger," was nominated for the mystery writers' Edgar Award.

"I can't write these books simultaneously," Atkins says. "It would make me schizophrenic, because they are very different — not only on the surface level with the settings and characters, but stylistically they are different in many ways."

Quinn is more uptight than the laid-back, wisecracking Spenser. In this second novel, Quinn takes on gun runners, Mexican drug gangs and a lowlife couple selling black-market babies. He also has to deal with the local power structure.

"Quinn is a relatively younger man who is still trying to find himself after 10 years in the Army," Atkins says. "Spenser is not a work in progress. He's figured it all out. He's totally evolved. He knows who he is, and he's got his own philosophy."

Atkins says it is a lot easier to get into the mind of Spenser, who likes jazz, good restaurants and old movies. "Quinn is much more different than I am," Atkins says. "He's based on people that I know who have been in the military."

The character also was inspired by 1970s blue-collar movie heroes such as those in "Smokey and the Bandit," "Walking Tall" and "Billy Jack."

Spenser, who debuted in 1973, is like one of those archetypical hardboiled detectives such as Sam Spade, Philip Marlow or Mike Hammer.

Parker's books have been hugely popular, selling millions of copies and inspiring a TV series, "Spenser: For Hire" (1985-88), starring Robert Urich, and three TV "Spenser" movies starring Joe Mantegna.

In "Lullaby," Spenser helps a lonely, streetwise 14-year-old girl solve the 4-year-old murder of her mother.

Atkins says that when he's writing a Spenser novel, he visits Boston to hang out at places the detective might frequent such as Fenway Park and some of Boston's finer restaurants. He reads the Boston newspapers, listens to jazz and 1940s and '50s standards, and gets into the mindset of the sarcastic Spenser.

When he's writing the Quinn Colson book, Atkins returns to his farm in Mississippi, listens to country music and visits rural towns that recall the novels of William Faulkner.

"This is right in my backyard," he says. "There are parts of northern Mississippi that have not changed greatly in the past 100 years, and that's appealing to me as a writer. There are a lot of clashes in these old counties that are like something out of the Old West."

Atkins has long credited Parker with being an inspiration for his writing. He says he started reading Parker while in high school, and one of his prized possessions is an autographed copy of Parker's "Double Deuce" that he got for a 21st birthday present.

The two never met, but they corresponded and Parker wrote an endorsement for Atkins' "Crossroad Blues."

Both writers had something else in common. "Ace" was Parker's nickname. He picked up the moniker from Ace Parker, who played for the NFL's Boston Yanks in the 1940s. Ace Atkins was named for his father, the late Billy Atkins, a key player on Auburn's 1957 championship football team and later played in the American Football League.

Both "Lullaby" and "The Lost Ones" are inspired by real crimes that Atkins researched. "I do a lot of interviews, and in many ways I use those reporting skills that I learned while working at the newspaper," he says.

The Alabama native, who was a stand-out football player for Auburn University, worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Tribune (1996 to 2001). His wife, Angela, also worked for the Times.

While working as the Tribune's crime reporter, he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for as seven-part series "Tampa Confidential," about an unsolved 1956 murder case. This led to his fact-based "White Shadow" novel about Tampa's rich history with the mob and the 1955 murder of gangster Charlie Wall.

Atkins left the Tribune to become a full-time novelist. His "Wicked City," "Devil's Garden" and "Infamous" are historical novels based on real crimes in Phenix City, Ala., in the 1950s, San Francisco in the 1920s and Oklahoma in the 1930s.

"Some of the best years of my life were spent working for the Tribune," he says. "I was so proud to do it, and I loved it. I had a blast. I came in there green and learned a lot from the editors. I still have two books that I want to write about Tampa set in the 1930s."

ACE ATKINS BOOK SIGNINGS

When/Where:

3 p.m. Thursday at Haslam's Book Store, 2025 Central Ave., St. Petersburg

7 p.m. Thursday at Inkwood Books, 216 South Armenia Ave., Tampa

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