The Mississippi Delta and Cuba’s Havana don’t share many similarities. The Delta is an agrarian land and its name conjures up cotton fields, soul-selling bluesmen, banged-up guitars, and slides fashioned from bottlenecks. On the other hand, our popular image of Havana in the 1950s is fashioned by images of cool automobiles, stylish guayaberas, and fine cigars. The soundtracks of these two disparate geographies are equally different. The Delta’s blues, grown out of field hollers and church music into a 12-bar, bent note melodies, seems worlds away from the bebop and Latin rhythms of the Cuban Jazz sound. However, with White Shadow, Ace Atkins, a most musical writer, has managed to cross that cultural divide.
Atkins’ career to this point has been based on the blues. Author of four well-regarded mystery novels centering on Nick Travers, a blues historian, Atkins’ work is steeped in the simple, plaintive notes of old guitarists. But his new novel examines a different time, setting, and most challenging of all for a writer so inspired by music: a different sound.
White Shadow looks at the seedy side of Tampa, Florida and its Havana connections in the mid-fifties. At the time, Tampa wasn’t the placid retiree haven that exists today. Instead, gang wars and turf battles created a time known as “the Era of Blood” and the streets and back alleys made up “a city that refused to be civilized.” Atkins knows these streets well. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 while working as a reporter at The Tampa Tribune. In fact, the reporting that led to that prize nomination provides the basis for White Shadow. Retired crime kingpin Charlie Wall did exist. Fidel Castro did visit Tampa to raise money for his revolution. And characters in the novel such as detective Ellis Clifton not only existed in real life, they provided valuable information to Atkins.
White Shadow is a novel, but it is a novel that is based on true events that Atkins spent more than five years researching. Court documents, police records, hours of interviews, and a trip to Havana all provided grist for Atkins’ mill.
As the characters in the novel strive to find Charlie Wall’s killer, Atkins unfolds a mystery that is rare in its languid pace. Generally speaking, mystery novels are supposed to be page-turners. Thrillers. Fast-moving. Roller coasters of excitement. But White Shadow slowly unfurls itself, strolling along with the readers, as it evokes the heat and humidity of a setting where the languorousness stands in sharp contrast to the life and death stakes at hand. Murder, corruption, and organized crime are all present, but the heat seems to suck the speed out of them, so even death is dispatched in slow motion.
Ultimately, the atmosphere of this novel is the star. Atkins nails all the period details and describes the city perfectly. The setting and atmosphere are so artfully illustrated that they are a key reason why the book seems to have such a languid pace:
The car honked at him and slowed as it passed, a man calling him an old drunk. But Charlie dismissed the bastard with a wave and wandered down to Franklin Street, where he knew you could window shop at night. You could watch all the beautiful televisions behind the glass lighting up the puddles on the sidewalk, and there were mechanical toys that jumped and played and barked. Down at Maas Brothers department store, a plastic woman served dinner straight from a GE oven to a smiling plastic man at a dinette set.
Mystery novels that are termed “page turners” earn that designation because every extra word is jettisoned so the sole focus is plot. But, in the case of White Shadow, why rush to turn the page when each paragraph is so wonderfully rendered? Why quickly flip the page when there are so many fine details to savor?
Which brings us back to music. Not only does Atkins vividly describe this character’s watch and that character’s cigar, but as with all his work, the music provides a beautiful soundtrack to White Shadow. Music permeates Atkins’ work to such an extent that there is a constant underscore of emotion, tension, and romance. Specific songs are mentioned at just the right time and combine with the period details to provide a cinematic experience on the page.