Friday, 25 March 2011

ACE ATKINS' WHITE SHADOW: A Forgotten Friday entry

I'm not sure, as usual, that one could call White Shadow 'forgotten' but suffice it to say I'd missed it when it first came out in 2006, and just caught up with it now. It was Atkins' first non-series book, and it's a terrifically atmospheric novel set in Tampa and Havana, in1955, around the real-life murder of Charlie Wall, a retired racketeer. Atkins builds the historical context carefully--Batista, Santo Trafficante, George Raft, Meyer Lansky, and Fidel Castro all appear, but what he does even better is to build a sense of the era, and the ethos of crime and corruption that mark and connect those two cities.

Within this mix he places an obsessive cop, Ed Dodge, nursing his own demons which go back to childhood and rebound in his unhappy marriage, a tough gangster, 'Scarface' Johnny Rivera, who's lost Wall's journal and needs to get it back, and a young reporter, LB Turner, who's just a little too idealistic, especially for the girl of his dreams, a reporter on the bigger Tampa paper. Through the eyes and actions of these three, we see the workings of the old school, in which crime is part of the fabric of society, to a bigger extent than the term 'underworld' implies. Atkins balances these stories deftly, letting them connect as necessary, and in some cases tragically, but also using them to reflect each other, presenting similar actions from different perspectives.

It's part mystery--who killed Charlie Wall?--but more than that it's a story about changing times. In that sense, it's a little bit like Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy, set on the cusp between the eras, and Dodge in particular is the kind of flawed obsessive Ellroy made a speciality. But Atkins' prose is far more understated, at times even reporterly, and rather than getting caught in the flow he builds the story in layers, with resonance between those layers. In LB's hopeless romance with Eleanor Charles, Atkins fills in generations of American attitudes, reflecting how they play in marriage and in the world of hookers, bar-girls, and of course Havana.

That Atkins started his career as a reporter in Tampa is probably not coincidental, and it's easy seeing him doing what the best reporters do--staying up odd hours drinking and listening to people who have stories to tell, much as LB tries to do. You can almost hear his own wistfulness when he has Trafficante complain 'it's all can't be a man and conduct business any more...I'm not talking about Charlie Wall...I'm talking about the States. Everyone is out to get everybody.' This is a mob boss talking, in 1955, remember. It's a bravura piece of writing, and Atkins has nailed his world.

White Shadow by Ace Atkins
Berkeley, 2007, $7.99 ISBN 9780425214909


Yvette said...

I read this a while back and loved it. Although not right off the bat. It took me a few chapters to really get into it. I think this contains some of Ace's best writing. A couple of my favorite scenes were the ones with Fidel Castro. A terrific book.

Great review.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to reading this one. I've only read two Ace Atkins books (Devi's Garden and Infamous) and enjoyed them both very much.

Dave said...

For fans of Ace the storyteller White Shadow is good Atkins. For fans of Ace the reporter White Shadow is great Atkins.