Ace Atkins – White Shadow (2006)
Once upon a time in the seamy fifties, in a strange crime-ridden land called Tampa, there dwelled a very intriguing and mostly forgotten cast of characters. Then along came novelist Ace Atkins. A Florida reporter himself in his younger days, he is also known for his series of books featuring peripatetic southerner Nick Travers, a musical “blues hunter,” who excels at solving murderous puzzles.
But Atkins had always remained fascinated by Florida’s dark criminal past and the memories of a long ago unsolved murder. So he’s gone fishing in the deeper, murkier waters of history this time out and come up with a brilliant epic of greed, deceit and corruption.
In White Shadow, Atkins has taken the real, mostly forgotten murder of old time crime boss Charlie Wall — “The old King, the White Shadow as he was called by the superstitious Latins was dead.” — added his own plausible spin and blended in characters of his own invention. By some alchemy of talent and bravado, he’s shaken off the dust of the past and brought a long lost era to furious life, creating the story of a place as much as the people in it.
This blend of fiction and non makes for a strangely satisfying noir crime classic that will captivate anyone even mildly interested in history. Yet the story is so compelling that having no idea of what went on in Florida in the fifties, as I surely didn’t, you still can’t help but be drawn into Atkin’s darkly spinning web.
1955 was a time when Cuba was still a flashy playground for the rich and famous. Crime figures and politicos sailed back and forth between both countries with equanimity, mutually feeding off the spoils of El Presidente Fulgencio Batista’s corruption. “Bolita” was the name of the game then. The reader can almost hear the Latin beat of the music, breathe in the strong smell of tobacco from the cigar factories, the heat and sweat of the workers, even the luscious scent of olive oil and overripe flowers. Atkins vividly recreates this world as it must have been.
This pungent background adds to the novel’s rich multi-layered texture as the setting switches back and forth between the Florida coast and Havana. A young Fidel Castro is an up-and-comer, a rabble rouser giving voice to the Cuban disenfranchised. Often in Florida raising money while spreading the gospel of the revolution, in author Atkin’s hands he appears as a somewhat sympathetic minor figure, although his aura is huge. In fact, the few scenes between Castro and fictional Times reporter L.B. Turner are some of the book’s most intriguing.
Turner was twenty-six then, a friend of old Charlie Wall and a fresh-faced crime reporter burdened by a dangerous passion for the truth and a hopeless desire for a self-destructive dame named Eleanor. There are several “dames” in this book, mostly of the painted and varnished variety, serving as foils for the hard boiled male characters. They break your heart, nonetheless, especially Lucrezia, the half-crazed tobacco girl driven to murder.
The book’s sole first person point-of-view belongs to Turner, while the rest of the story is told in the third person from the various points of view of several characters, none more interesting than the laconic cop, Ed Dodge. Here’s a guy written with enormous heft. A rumpled, sweat stained cynic, burdened by memory and very near the end-of-his-rope. A guy slowly being corroded by the raw sewage through which he must wade; an imperfect hero for a decidedly un-heroic time. Part of the fascination of following him around is wondering if he’ll be able to hold himself together. Never more so than in a harrowing trip to Havana in the company of some sleazy Cuban cops.
Where Turner the reporter is naive and likeable and often seems helplessly kicked around by events, Dodge is ominously pro-active. Not the most moral man in a dark universe, but you can’t help but admire the very fact that somehow, he manages to navigate the shoals — without completely losing his soul:
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.
Ed Dodge knew it was all a symphony of Latin jazz and sinners and bright-eyed boys who shined your shoes for ten cents, and that the feeling of the lights and the music and the smell of the roasting coffee down at Naveira Mills and of the black beans at Las Novedades was some kind of dream.
Old time Florida mobster Charlie Wall, once a dominant boss within the teeming Latin section of Tampa called Ybor City kept a ledger filled with secrets. (A lesson to criminals, never write anything down!) And it was the nature of these secrets — or perhaps just the very idea of them — that finally killed him. In old age. Beaten half to death. Throat slit in half. When most of those secrets, one would have thought, were worthless. But someone had decided they were not.
This is a complex, often lurid tale, sometimes hard to take when Atkins goes in for the close-up. We often sit in on the vile imaginings of underworld hoods and tag along as they go about their brutal dirty work, real and imagined characters together. It is hard not to walk away feeling a bit soiled by Atkins’s unmerciful eye. But as the overwhelming popularity of The Sopranos on cable TV proves, this soil is easily rinsed off.
The author’s experience as a reporter adds a kind of raw immediacy to his words and his unsparing style is unlike any other writer working today. White Shadow is lovingly researched, yet it is a pitiless recreation of a deadly world. Here’s hoping that this superb book will catapult Atkins to the literary superstardom he so richly deserves.