Don Noble
11:22 am
Mon March 29, 2004

Dirty South

Atkins has just published his fourth Nick Travers suspense/mystery novel. The heart of any such series is the sleuth, of course, and Nick, established in the first novel, Crossroad Blues, is quite a creation.

Dirty South

Here's the first thing you need to know about Ace Atkins: Ace is his real name. It is on his birth certificate.

Atkins has just published his fourth Nick Travers suspense/mystery novel. The heart of any such series is the sleuth, of course, and Nick, established in the first novel, Crossroad Blues, is quite a creation.

Travers was an Alabama boy whose mother committed suicide when he was a small child and whose alcoholic father let the family farm go to weeds and ruin. Nick played college football at Tulane and then was a defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints until, angry and frustrated at being pulled out of a game, he knocked down an assistant coach on the sidelines, on television, and then poured a cooler full of ice water on him.

His football career over, Nick took an MA at Tulane and a PhD in Southern Studies from Ole Miss. Nick is now on the faculty at Tulane and his specialty is the blues. He??s a ??tracker???Che researches old delta blues singers, does musicology and music history, and is an expert on subjects such as Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

He is also an accomplished harmonica player, having been taught in JoJo??s Blues Bar, where he was more or less adopted by the owner, JoJo Jackson, and his blues-singing wife, Loretta. So Nick is big, strong, and smart and moves comfortably around black Louisiana and Mississippi as well as white.

In Dirty South, a fifteen-year-old rap singer called ALIAS, originally from New Orleans?? Calliope projects, is a millionaire who has been conned out of five hundred thousand dollars. His record producer, Teddy Paris, is under a death threat from Cash, a competitor, for an unpaid loan. Paris, 300 lbs. and 6 ft. 6,?? played on the Saints with Nick, so Nick will help him out. Who conned ALIAS? And where is the half million the fifteen-year-old lost?

We learn a lot about the world of rap music and its production. In truth, more than I wanted to know, but, in fairness, in the four Nick Travers novels, I learned a lot more about the blues than I ever wanted to know, too. And the reader will learn a lot more about parts of New Orleans gang life than he might want to know.

For example, Teddy, a good guy, we think, wears two-thousand-dollar suits and one-thousand-dollar shoes and rides around in a Bentley with a rabbit-fur interior. His boys drive Hummers and Escalades. Cash, the bad guy, or so we think, rides in a Rolls. His entourage uses Ferraris and Escalades. The common denominator is Escalades. Cash, however, goes over the fashion line. He has had all his teeth capped in platinum with embedded diamonds.

Atkins?? novels are set in the poverty of the Delta and the poverty and extravagance of the Big Easy. Readers who want the lowdown on restaurants and music may use the books as Baedekers: Antoine??s is not what it was, Bourbon street music is now inauthentic, Central Market muffalettas are as good as ever, etc. These novels are deeply rooted in place, and if this is your place, that??s fun.

These four novels are violent, and there is some steamy sex in the steamy Delta and the steamy Crescent City. But Atkins can really write. The characters are colorful, the plots are complicated to a fault, and Atkins has turned the neatest trick of all. As one reads along, one has the feeling of learning things. American readers love that. We??re not just reading for fun here. This is educational. I am learning about American roots music.

Ace Atkins himself was a member of the 1993 undefeated Auburn football team, a crime reporter on the Tampa Tribune, nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, and now lives on a farm outside Oxford, Mississippi. He knows what he??s talking about.

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