Don Noble
2:08 pm
Mon May 1, 2006

White Shadow

Having established his readership, Atkins could have gone on with this series indefinitely, and I am sure his publishers wanted him to, but he has instead written a stand-alone thriller, White Shadow.

Ace Atkins had it made. Atkins had published four novels starring his attractive detective/protagonist Nick Travers. Travers is an ex-pro-football player, single, of course, lives in New Orleans, is a professor of musicology at Tulane--brawn and brains, you understand--and while doing research into the Blues, in the Mississippi Delta, runs into murders old and new, which he solves.

Having established his readership, Atkins could have gone on with this series indefinitely, and I am sure his publishers wanted him to, but he has instead written a stand-alone thriller, White Shadow.

This novel is set in Tampa, Florida, in 1955. Ace Atkins, a small-town Alabama boy, after playing football for Auburn (he and his father were each on an Auburn national championship football team), became a crime reporter at the "ampa Tribune." Those years and his research into the violent Tampa of the 1950s thoroughly inform this novel.

Atkins is here attempting, with considerable success, to reproduce the crime novel, the noir fiction of the 1930s and 40s, and he captures the tone and the subject matter remarkably well.

Most of the action takes place in the old Cuban section of Tampa. "Ybor City was brown-skinned women with green eyes and tight flowered dresses that hugged their full fannies as they switched and swayed down the sidewalks of Broadway past the flower shops, tobacco stands, and jewelry stores. It was men in straw fedoras and children with dripping ice cream and whores standing in back alleys smart-mouthing beat cops who roamed the avenue holding cigars in their thick fingers."

The novel opens with the savage murder of Charlie Wall, a seventy-five-year-old retired gangster, the "White Shadow" of the title. Charlie had been out of the rackets for years. He led a small, sad life, hanging out at the Turf bar telling old stories everyone had heard and getting drunk so he could forget about "being alone at The Turf with the rain and the women who smiled out of pity."

Why would anyone kill this harmless old man? The hard-boiled police detective, Ed Dodge, sets out to learn why, as does the hard-boiled crime reporter for the Tampa Daily Times, L. B. Turner. Turner is a lonesome isolato, living alone and always on the job. And he drinks too much. Dodge, who also drinks too much, has a wife and child, but his wife is a drug addict who cheats on him with other cops. Turner is marginally better off.

There are, of course, "broads." Turner has a girl he sees occasionally, Eleanor Charles, who is a reporter for the competition, the Tampa Tribune. "Her hair was very blonde and shiny and curled up at the shoulder. She had thick eyebrows, not the painted-on kind so popular at the time, and a face that always reminded me strongly of Grace Kelly." There is also a Cuban girl, Lucrezia, who "knows too much" and is on the run, she is "narrow-hipped, with full, sensual lips and slanted brown eyes that became obscured in the brushiness of her pageboy cut."

The action moves around Tampa and even to Havana. Real persons such as Santo Trafficanti, the actor George Raft, and even Fidel Castro are characters in this novel. There are old Italian mafiosi, young Italians, old and young Cuban gangsters, Batista's vicious police, and cops of every ethical variety.

This novel is so full of characters being beaten by baseball bats, blackjacks, and other tools and killed with shotguns, pistols, etc., or pleasured in various ways by exotic women, it actually becomes hard to follow. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett is 178 pages long. Double Indemnity by James M. Cain is only 110. White Shadow is 370. Noir is intense, highly spiced language. However well-handled, we do not want too much at once.

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