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Don't Let the Devil Ride

This week, Don review's "Don't Let the Devil Ride" by Atkins.

Ace Atkins, a man of infinite energy and versatility, started his career alternating Nick Travers books, five in all, with four stand-alone novels, fictionalized true-crime. My favorite: the Fatty Arbuckle case. Atkins then wrote 11 Sheriff Quinn Colson books, set in contemporary Mississippi, and simultaneously 10 Spenser volumes after Robert Parker passed away. During those years, in an imaginative juggling act of breathtaking proportions, Atkins wrote daily of rural Mississippi AND downtown Boston. While Spenser has a drink at the Parker House, Colson puts on his Carhartt jacket and has a beer.

But now Atkins has moved in an entirely new direction, the international thriller. “Don’t Let the Devil Drive” is set in Memphis, Mississippi’s second largest city after New Orleans, but the action jumps from there to Paris, Dubai, Cairo, London. This new novel has a nearly perfect first chapter which begins: “The last time Addison McKellar’s husband disappeared, it had been the night of the private Hootie and the Blowfish concert at the Overton Park shell.” That was 2008.

That disappearance had been for five days. Now Dean has been missing a week—no word at all. Addison is used to Dean’s sudden business trips, to being out of touch, but this is too much. Is there another woman? That seems like the clichéd and likely answer. She is angry, frustrated, confused. She goes downtown to the offices of McKellar Construction to find there, Townsend Interiors. No Dean. No McKellar Construction. Not for two years. She pitches a fit, and gets arrested. The worst day of her life. The reader, like Addison, HAS to know, and in time we learn a good deal. Addison hires Porter Hayes, a black Memphis private detective, in his seventies and experienced and wise beyond even those considerable years.

Hayes reminded me of a much older Easy Rawlins, Walter Mosely’s detective, but calmer. Hayes’ wife, Genevieve, now deceased, was a blues singer. He loathes Hootie. Hayes begins to search and unravel the mystery and it is labyrinthine. The rich, pompous, arrogant Dean McKellar with his four-thousand-dollar shoes doesn’t really exist. There is no construction company. McKellar, we guess, is an international spy, criminal, psychopath, arms dealer, mercenary, icy at the heart. Which is a shame because there are two McKellar children. The teen Sara Caroline is a spoiled brat, but young Preston is a nice kid. Atkins’ prose is high energy. This novel is in truth a page-turner, a wild ride, with gun battles in a pretentiously renovated kitchen and violence in a flat in Paris.

Atkins skillfully generates a large, varied cast: Addison’s feckless brother, Dean’s ex-partner, Dean’s lawyer, a charming Frenchman named Gaultier, a has-been actress, Joanna Grayson, who once was in a movie with Elvis, her daughter Tippi, a one-armed thug with a hook, various Middle Eastern villains. All are convincingly wrought, but trust no one and don’t get attached. In this novel the characters have a shockingly short life span: Easy Come, Easy Go.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.