Around ten years ago, my husband and I were lucky enough to see a play by Bill Harris, called "Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil." That wasn't the first time we'd heard the name Robert Johnson, of course. But it certainly got us more interested in him. The atmosphere, the story, the music--all were compelling to say the least.
The story goes like this: Johnson was a blues singer in Mississippi, who without a lot of training or experience, was suddenly able to step up to the mic as a skilled practitioner. The most skilled practitioner of all time, some say. Supposedly, he'd sold his soul to the devil on a crossroad in Mississippi in order to make this happen.
The actual song "Crossroad Blues," (out of print for many years) according to historian Leon Litwack, referenced the fear black people experienced being alone and vulnerable in the night, trying to find their way home on the southern roads of that era.
But people came to believe it referred to the crossroad Johnson came to both literally and figuratively when he sold his soul for success.
The play made such an impression on us that we purchased Johnson's music, a cassette in those days, flew to Memphis and wound our way down through Mississippi, ending our trip in Natchez. We fell in love with the area, especially the leisurely drive down the Trace, stopping here and there for meals and lodging. And always the blues playing in the background. We were able to pick up some additional recordings in a music shop in Oxford, too. This is not a review of that play or that trip, which I must admit has faded over the years, but rather a review of Ace Atkins' first novel, CROSSROAD BLUES, a phenomenally assured debut for a writer of then 25, first published more than a decade ago now. The book went out of print (as so often happens these days). Atkins went on to publish more books but that first book was increasingly hard to come by for readers.
Enter David Thompson, editor of Busted Flush Press, who was impressed with both the book and Ace Atkins on meeting him in 1999 at Murder by the Book bookstore in Houston. It was at a signing for Atkins' second book in the series, LEAVIN' TRUNK BLUES.
Thompson eventually remedied the situation, bringing CROSSROAD BLUES back again this year. To sweeten the new edition, a new cover was designed by graphic designer, Mark Francis. A forward by music critic, Greil Marcus also introduces the book. And to make a good thing even better, a story written by Atkins is included and was nominated for an Edgar award as "Best Short Story" by the Mystery Writers of American last week.
But to get to the important part: what's the book about? Why did I enjoy it so much? Because it brought back the feeling I had when I saw the play, when I drove down the Trace, when I heard that music.
PLOT:Nick Travers, a former football player, is now employed by Tulane University in New Orleans teaching the history of the blues. In his spare time, he is a "tracker" and scholar, seeking gap-filling information about blues singers in the last century. His particular interest is in Guitar Slim. Travers also plays blues at JoJos Blues Bar.
A Tulane colleague, who was following leads about some missing Robert Johnson music, goes missing himself, and Travers, knowing the area and the people, agrees to look into it. Along the way, he tangles with a tantalizing redhead, a wily albino with more information than is good for him, a lethal Elvis lookalike and other dangerous types following the same path, looking to score from supposedly missing records Johnson made before his death.
Atkins is so highly skilled at evoking atmosphere-you feel like you're traveling down through the Delta with him, stopping at jukes, having a po boy on the road or a beignet in New Orleans, listening to some great music. He creates a believable protagonist, who wrestles with some dangerous adversaries as well as the question of how to keep the blues alive without exploiting it. This is fine crime fiction, but it is these other elements that makes the novel sing.
It's hard to believe a 25-year old had the nerve and talent to write this exciting and evocative book. You can feel the excitement and enthusiasm of the young author in every sentence. Such ardor is a gift of youth.
Patricia Abbott is the author of more than 125 stories that have appeared online, in print journals and in various anthologies. She is the author of two print novels CONCRETE ANGEL (2015) and SHOT IN DETROIT (2016)(Polis Books). CONCRETE ANGEL was nominated for an Anthony and Macavity Award in 2016. SHOT IN DETROIT was nominated for an Edgar Award and an Anthony Award in 2017. A collection of her stories I BRING SORROW AND OTHER STORIES OF TRANSGRESSION will appear in 2018.