Ace Atkins, the Oxford, Mississippi-based novelist, specializes in gritty, hardboiled characters who know their way around a liquor cabinet. The opening scene in Atkins' first book, 1998's Crossroad Blues, takes place in a fictional French Quarter watering hole called JoJo's Blues Bar. Some 20-odd titles later, the thread continues with page-turning plot elements that center around bootlegging, rum running, and, on occasion, the love of a cold Busch beer. I caught up with Atkins at the end of a workday, just before he enjoyed a well-earned glass of Bulleit bourbon.
Your newest novel, The Fallen, was released this week. It's one of your "Quinn Colson" books — about an Army Ranger-turned-North Mississippi sheriff. What does a character like Colson like to drink?
Quinn Colson drinks bourbon and beer. I wouldn't call him a real connoisseur — he's the kind of guy who might have a cold beer, like Coors or Budweiser, with dinner.
Is the fictional Tibbehah County, where most of your contemporary novels take place, a dry county?
For a long time, it had been a county where you couldn't drink at all, but now you can get a liquor license there. There's a bar called the Southern Star in my Quinn Colson books that's modeled on a great place called the White Star, which is in Water Valley, Mississippi.
Since 2012, you've been writing the Spenser series of detective novels, begun by the late, great mystery writer Robert B. Parker. What does the Boston private eye drink?
Spenser used to be a bourbon guy, but in the later books, Parker had him moving to Scotch. I do not like Scotch. I'm a Southerner, and I like bourbon. When I was hired to continue the series, I moved Spenser back to bourbon.
Your online biography states that you're "friend to several bartenders."
I've been in Oxford so long that many of them have retired! Justin Burnett and John Spreafico at City Grocery, Will Griffith at Proud Larry's. Several years ago, there was a writer in town who was a real a-hole to many of the local bartenders. As Randy Yates at Ajax said, "What kind of writer is rude to a bartender?"
And in Memphis? I love going down to Earnestine & Hazel's. I used to go to the Lamplighter, which was a lot of fun. Miss Shirley [Williams] was there for years, and she always remembered me. That's the kind of bar I like: a place that looks lived in, with characters and stories and a really good jukebox. A place where you can feel welcome, with a bartender who can hold a real conversation.
What's your current drink of choice?
While I'm writing, I'm usually drinking coffee. But I do really like bourbon, and that's my go-to, my reward, post-writing. I'll drink a Woodford on the rocks, or an old fashioned with Luxardo cherries and Bulleit rye. As far as beer goes, I lean toward Yalobusha Brewing Company out of Water Valley and Ghost River or Wiseacre if I'm in Memphis.
How much of a role does liquor play in Wicked City, your novel about the circa-1950s organized crime element in Phenix City, Alabama?
In that era, in the Bible Belt where extreme drinking was frowned upon, you'd go to Phenix City to get boozed up. Drinking was a big part of the culture there. Around that same time, my grandfather was a bootlegger in Lamar County, Alabama. He was on the distribution side, not the production side. My dad played football and went to college, but my uncles all drove for him, like something out of the Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road.
How about White Shadow, your fictionalized account of Tampa mob boss Charlie Wall's murder in 1955?
Wall was responsible for bringing a lot of rum through Cuba, and I do like rum. My favorite is Zaya, a dark rum that is very addictive.
Got a cocktail recipe to go with that?
If I'm gonna drink a liquor, I drink it neat. I'm not going to screw it up. That's a cardinal sin.