The Revelators (Putnam) marks the 10th installment of Ace Atkins series about Quinn Colson, sheriff of Mississippi’s Tibbehah County. Expect a lot of changes in Quinn’s life and the county’s landscape. The Quinn Colson novels have been nominated for an Edgar Award twice for best novel—The Lost Ones (2013) and The Ranger (2012). Atkins’s short story "Last Fair Deal Gone Down" received an Edgar nomination in 2010.
A former newspaper reporter for the Tampa Tribune, Atkins published his first novel, Crossroad Blues, at age 27, eventually becoming a full-time novelist at age 30. He also is the author of eight New York Times-bestselling novels in the continuation of Robert B. Parker’s iconic Spenser series.
Mystery Scene caught up with Atkins to discuss his decade writing about Quinn Colson. The plan was to have 10 questions for 10 years of Quinn. Instead, we got a bit carried away.
Oline Cogdill for Mystery Scene: A decade of writing about Quinn Colson, a former U.S. Army Ranger is a milestone. When you first started writing about Quinn, had you planned to have this long a series?
Ace Atkins: I have to give credit to writing a series to my former editor, the legendary Neil Nyren. Neil has worked with everyone from Tom Clancy to Clive Cussler to C.J. Box. At the time, I had no intention of ever writing a series again as I continued working on standalone novels based on true crime stories. But Neil was intent on me creating something contemporary and set in the Deep South, since we realized there really wasn't a continuing hero based in my home turf. The long game was to create a world where we could have limitless adventures. And while I didn't think too far in the future, I definitely hoped we'd still be talking about Quinn ten years later.
How did you come up with this character? Is he based on any one person?
At the time, about 2009, I saw a lot of vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan going back to work and resuming their normal lives. It resonated with me as a timeless/classic idea. The basic premise of a solider coming home from war and finding his small town in shambles made sense to kick off a series. Quinn's story isn't that different from Odysseus.
I really had the idea of Quinn—a stoic, classic American hero—before I began the research. I wanted a character who combined traits of some of my favorite heroes—the social consciousness of Billy Jack and the strong sense of justice in Buford Pusser. But much of what Quinn saw and did as a soldier was based on one Army Ranger I interviewed while writing the book. I owe all the realism of Quinn's backstory to him. I wish I could talk more about him, but he's asked to remain nameless as he joined Special Forces about that time. He's basically been there and done that. A truly humble and cool dude.
Quinn has gone through a lot of changes in the series. What are you most proud of regarding this character?
Quinn has evolved as the series has gone on. He is a moral hero, but he's also made some questionable decisions, most notably getting involved with his high school girlfriend, who was a married woman. He also tried to make things right with his father, and then grew up and realized that, that might never happen. But he's gone on and endured, knowing that he can't fix everything or make everything right. He's also gotten married, adopted his wife's child, and is now expecting a child of his own. Ten years, especially between the ages of 30 and 40, can bring a lot of changes to a man. Evolution of character is what makes series exciting to me.
Quinn has also developed more of a sense of humor as the series has gone on. He's not as quippy as Spenser but has more of a wry, dark take on things. I was inspired a lot by the humor of James Garner. I only wish Garner could still be around to play Quinn on TV. He's who I always have in mind as I write.
You have some rich villains in your series, do you have a favorite villain?
Definitely Johnny Stagg, the OG. There wouldn't be a series without Stagg, the owner of a Southern backwoods truck stop with a strip club side hustle. His naked ambition, social climbing, and criminality made the series as much as Quinn. One reader aptly called him the "redneck Moriarty." I really miss that guy. I'm hoping he'll be back one day.
I am partial to Fannie Hathcock. She’s a self-made, successful businesswoman who has to prove her mettle almost daily within the male power structure. She sometimes shows compassion, but at the same time is ruthless, will eliminate anyone who gets in her way— even if she cares about the person—and exploits women. Tell me who this character is to you?
Fannie is ruthless, but I hope readers also understand the swamp she had to crawl out of to become rich and successful. Over several books she's built an empire and will do anything to protect it. I think she's someone who'd been abused and used all her life and decided to make the most of what she's learned. At her best, she's a character who's taken about all she can from men and decided to best them at their own game.
Of course, there wouldn't be a Fannie Hathcock without the real-life Louise Hathcock, who famously battled Buford Pusser back in the day. I'm also a big fan of movies from the Great Depression, particularly from the years 1933 through 1934. There's an excellent film with Barbara Stanwyck called Baby Face that formed a lot of Fannie's character. And also a wonderful Western from 1954 called Johnny Guitar, starring Joan Crawford that has a ton of Fannie in it. Crawford's character's name is Vienna and that inspired Fannie's modern saloon, Vienna's Place. The way Crawford stands on the catwalk above the action is all Fannie.
You surround Quinn with some very believable supporting characters, such as his best friend Boom, his deputy Lillie Virgil, and his family. Do you have a favorite supporting character?
A: Definitely Lillie. Something always lights up in the story when Lillie comes onto the page. She's a composite of a lot of tough women I knew when covering law enforcement as a newspaper reporter. But she also has a lot of Calamity Jane, and some of my wife Angela, in her DNA. She is straight and unfiltered. I'm hoping one day she'll have her own spinoff series in her new role as a U.S. Marshal in Memphis.
The Ranger series is a combination of mystery and Western; Quinn is kind of like Shane, cleaning up the area. Are you a Western fan?
A: The Ranger series is absolutely as much a Western as a crime novel. The whole genesis was the idea that so many small Southern towns reminded me of being in the Old West. There's a town square, maybe a train station, a general store and a post office. Somewhere you'll find the sheriff's office and jail. That's where you'll find Quinn with his boots up on his desk, waiting for the next story. And obviously there would be no Quinn Colson without Shane or Gary Cooper's Will Kane. I saw High Noon as a teenager and was mesmerized by it. Right now, in these shifting times of morality and truth, that walk Cooper makes down the empty streets is more relevant than ever. Who will stand with him?
I also learned a lot by watching The Andy Griffith Show. I like to think of The Ranger books as the PG-13 or R-rated version of that classic series. As he's grown older, Quinn has definitely evolved into someone with a moral compass like Andy's. Although, from time to time, he does have to shoot more bad guys.
You’ve lived in Mississippi for how many years? Are there things about the state you are still discovering in writing Ranger novels?
I moved to Mississippi in 2001. I moved around quite a bit as a kid, so I've actually lived in Oxford, Mississippi, longer than I've ever lived anywhere. Like another place I know well, Florida, there is unlimited corruption and hypocrisy. The issues that Faulkner wrote about 80 years ago are still with us. When I first wrote The Ranger, I felt we were living in a New South where things were getting better. The bad guys—a racist paramilitary group—still had to hide and train the woods. Now, in 2020, those same types of people are marching on the town square. We're stepping back in time. While it gives me plenty to explore and write about, it's really sickening.
How much research do you do whether it’s about the Rangers, law enforcement or Mississippi?
Most research now is about the subject I'm writing about. Much of the action of The Revelators revolves around the mistreatment and abuse of Mexican immigrants in poultry processing plants. I spent a decent amount of time learning about that world before writing. But, of course, I'm always checking in with my pals here in Mississippi at the local sheriff's offices. They come to me with stories that I couldn't make up in a thousand years.
Will Quinn ever travel to Boston and meet a private detective named Spenser or will Spenser ever travel to Mississippi and meet a certain sheriff? Do you think they would like each other?
Ha! I'd love that. But I don't think the lawyers would ever be able to figure out how to make that work. But if they ever met, they'd definitely like and respect each other. Both men of honor who live by a certain code.
You had a successful string of historical mysteries. Do you ever plan to write another?
I hope. Someday. I felt that as a former reporter, I was able to bring something bold and unusual to crime readers. I have a half-completed novel set in South Florida that I will finish. Also a sequel to the Tampa-based 1950s crime story, White Shadow. But with two books a year, a Quinn and a Spenser, time is pretty tight.
Will the walls of crime ever come tumbling down in Jericho?
I think the story of that battle is answered in The Revelators. The events of book number 10 have been in the works for some time. What comes after for Quinn and company will be very different with very different, more procedural type stories. This novel is the concluding story for many series regulars.
Anything you want to add?
Mainly that I'm excited to be publishing the 10th in a series and have already signed on for more with Putnam. Over the years, I've seen a lot of series come and go, including my own Nick Travers. That may be due to the author wanting to take on new stories, the publisher not selling enough books, or perhaps jumping publishers and that publisher not wanting to promote another's backlist. But having a history with Putnam and growing base of fans for Quinn has been a wonderful thing. I love taking readers from all over the country and over in Europe and Australia down South. I'm very fortunate to have had readers follow Quinn from story to story and want to know what's next down in Tibbehah County.
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Sweeney St. George series, about an academic who specializes in gravestone iconography. After a long (and much lamented) break from the mystery world, she returns with The Mountains Wild, a novel of memory and loss set in Ireland. In my opinion, The Mountains Wild is one of the reads of the year.
Robin Agnew for Mystery Scene: I loved your Sweeney St. George series, and it's been a long wait for this new book. I love to see you back in the mystery universe—what have you been up to?
Sarah Stewart Taylor: Thank you so much, Robin. The short answer is that we had three kids in five years and for a while there I was pretty much drowning in babies and toddlers! As much as I loved that early stage of parenting in lots of ways (and have loved seeing the amazing people those little ones, now 9, 11, and 14, have grown into), I found myself constantly exhausted and, honestly, just really creatively depleted for a good few years there, or creatively depleted for fiction writing. I was teaching and doing some other kinds of work in there. (There’s so much pressure to be positive when you’re promoting a new book, but I think it’s really important to be honest about this stuff and acknowledge the challenges that so many writers/parents face.) I also got really into sheep farming, which is a whole other story.
Anyway, I found that as my kids became consumers of children’s literature, first as listeners and then as readers, I was reliving my own journey as a reader, from picture books to fairy tales and Beverly Cleary and Sydney Taylor, to Lucy Maud Montgomery and Nancy Drew and E.L. Konigsburg and Zilpha Keatley Snyder, and then Jane Austen and Shakespeare—and of course Agatha Christie and P.D. James. It was amazing to rediscover the power of books and stories through their eyes, but then also on my own.
I was starting to have ideas for stories and one day, I was inspired to write again. I wrote a series of kids’ adventure novels (with a bit of mystery) that I absolutely loved creating and sharing with young readers, but somewhere in there I really started missing crime fiction, too, and I started to work on a novel that would become The Mountains Wild. The idea had been knocking around inside my head for a long time. I lived in Dublin, Ireland, for a few years in my twenties, working and then eventually going to graduate school, and the experience was really important to me in a lot of different ways. I arrived in Dublin in 1993, only a few months after a young American student named Annie McCarrick went missing in the Dublin mountains. Like me, she had grown up on Long Island and then moved to Ireland because of her interest in Irish culture and literature. She was a really wonderful person. I had a few other connections to her and the neighborhood she’d lived in and Irish friends told me to be careful enough times that the case sort of lodged in my head. A number of Irish women would disappear in roughly the same region of the country over the next few years and a group of these cases have never been definitively solved, including McCarrick’s. I’d always wanted to write about these cases, but I knew I shouldn’t and couldn’t try to write an Irish main character investigating these disappearances, so I began to focus on how I could write a fictional version from the point of view of an American character in Ireland, an experience I could write about with some authority. I finally found that I had an idea for how to do it, to create an American homicide detective whose life, many years ago, had been upended by the disappearance of her beloved cousin in Ireland. I knew that she went to Ireland as a young woman and that her inability to find her cousin led her to become a detective. And then I knew there would be new evidence and a new woman missing and 23 years later she would go back. The real-life cases were the start of the process, but ultimately I had to create a completely fictional version in order to say the things I wanted to say about memory and love.
What kinds of books have you been reading during this gap that have proved influential?
It’s probably no surprise to anyone that during this time I discovered—and absolutely loved—Tana French’s novels. I’ve also been catching up on lots of other great Irish crime writers. In fact I just did a blog post about some of my discoveries. There are so many incredible Irish writers exploring—and breaking—the parameters of crime writing. I discovered Attica Locke’s novels a few years ago and I am such a huge fan. She combines beautiful writing, rich characters, and an engagement with history and politics that just blows me away. I’ve loved keeping up with longtime series by writers like Julia Spencer-Fleming, Archer Mayor, Lee Child, Deborah Crombie, Louise Penny, and Ann Cleeves, and I’ve also found that I’ve been going back to old favorites like Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine recently.
I always thought the Sweeney books were the journey of a young woman figuring her life out as she goes. In this new book, the focus is on a middle-aged woman, Maggie, with a successful career. How are these two kinds of characters different to write about? Is this just a reflection of your own life journey?
On some level it is, though one of the things I loved about writing Maggie in The Mountains Wild is that I got to describe her in both stages of life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how in some ways we do have these very different eras of our lives, where we’re concerned with completely different things, but that in essential ways we are who we are, and at middle age I think many of us kind of come back to ourselves, if that makes sense. I know that the writing of this book brought me back to myself in a lot of ways, both in returning to crime fiction and in starting to spend more time in Ireland again. In a sense that’s what Maggie’s up to in this first book, trying to reconcile all the different versions of herself with each other in order to solve the mystery of who Erin was and what really happened to her. She has to remember the things she doesn’t want to remember and ask the questions she doesn’t want to ask.
Much of The Mountains Wild is a real love letter to Ireland. How did your love of Ireland come about?
I moved to Dublin the summer after I graduated from college. I had spent some time there while studying abroad in England and I took an amazing Joyce class my senior year and I guess that was it. It was just this idea that I had, that I wanted to go to Ireland. I worked that summer and bought a one-way ticket, thinking I’d travel for a few months and then go home and settle into a job in publishing in New York or something, but instead I settled into life in Dublin. I made friends, fell in and out of love, worked in pubs and restaurants and at a youth hostel and as a nanny, and I made and sold jewelry and took a filmmaking class, and eventually I applied to graduate school at Trinity and got a masters degree in Irish literature. During my time at Trinity, I started writing a novel that, after many twists and turns and transformations, would become the first Sweeney mystery. I got some kind words from a writing professor and I was part of a casual writers’ workshop that would meet up at different pubs in Dublin. People would read their work out loud and everyone would offer encouragement. That was a hugely important thing for me, to read the beginning of my nascent novel and to be told to keep going. Just that, keep going.
I have Irish heritage, a fair bit it turns out, but my family didn’t identify as Irish American in any meaningful way (unlike Maggie, who grew up strongly influenced and surrounded by her family’s Long Island Irish American community). We were Unitarians and, I suppose, identified culturally more as New Englanders, through my father’s family. And so I came to my love of Ireland and Irish culture from a place of real discovery, and a specific interest in the diversity of Irish experience. Dublin in the mid-’90s had a lot of great, wild energy. Irish friends have described those years to me as being transitional in a lot of respects—socially, culturally, economically—and it sort of felt that way, living there then. My best friends in Dublin were Irish and Scottish and English and Spanish and Polish and Australian. One of the characters in The Mountains Wild is a young police detective whose family immigrated to Ireland from Poland around the time Poland joined the EU, and I loved writing about her and learning more about recent immigrants to Ireland and first-generation Irish citizens.
It feels like a cliché to say it, because who doesn’t love Ireland, but my deep and abiding interest in all things Irish has been one of the great sources of richness and growth in my life. I’m an Irish language learner and I take lessons from a 90-year-old woman here in Vermont who has become one of my closest friends. I’m working on a genealogical writing project right now, about my great-grandfather, who emigrated to Boston from West Cork, and it’s turned into an amazing mystery of its own....
This is also a police novel, with a main character who is an American cop as well as a number of Irish Garda. What kind of research was involved to make this part of the book authentic?
I did a lot of research on Ireland’s national police force, An Garda Síochána, on the command structures, the relationships between local stations and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The Garda had undergone a lot of change and reorganization since I’d lived in Ireland, so I found that was the thing I really had to spend a lot of time on, understanding the relationships between all the different parts of the organization, and what everyone’s roles are. It’s very different from our state and county police forces in the States. I consulted with a couple of members of the Guards, as Irish people often refer to the Gardaí, and they were great about answering questions and clarifying things for me. But ultimately, I think you have to strike a balance between doing your work and it being believable and also making choices for your story. I now love seeing how different Irish crime writers handle the Garda hierarchy and special units structure. Do you create a fictional, discreet murder division, like Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad, or do you give the case to a local detective, with technical support from the NBCI, or do you create some other dynamic between various members of the force? People handle it in many different ways.
I’m now kind of obsessed with these obscure points of Garda governance. I’ve been closely following the recent reorganization of policing services. I follow the Garda Facebook account and read the Irish Times online most days, and that really helps in my understanding of how Gardaí interact with the public on a daily basis and how criminal investigations proceed.
As for Maggie’s home department on Long Island, I’ve had to do a lot of research on the Suffolk County Police Department and the relationships between local and county-wide detectives in special divisions and the crime lab and the district attorney’s office. I think that’s one of the things that most of us most frequently misunderstand about police procedure, how many people are a part of a criminal investigation and how many different divisions of a law enforcement agency are involved. But of course we often have to reassign tasks to keep the cast of characters manageable.
I thought so much of this book centered on memory. The memories of the main character when it comes to her missing cousin, the memories of witnesses, and basically the kind of malleable nature of memories. Can you talk about that a bit?
I’m so glad you mentioned that. Yes, I wanted to write about how we form our impressions of people through memories, through patching together all of our recollections to create our ideas of who they were and are and what made them tick. But of course our memories are always incomplete. We weren’t there for important events, we misremember things. Most importantly, I think we so often fail to ask the right questions of the people we love. That was what really drove this novel for me, thinking about detectives as questioners and all of us as detectives of our loved ones’ secrets. But what if you don’t ask the right questions? What if you fail to ask the question that could have opened up the thing you really need to know about that person? What if you’re afraid to? What if the impression you’ve created of a person from all of your memories turns out to be false, because the memory you’ve left out is the crucial one?
Maggie is a skilled detective, but, as she discovers, she doesn’t have all the information she really needs to understand the people she loves.
I loved your earlier books, as I said, but this book seems more directed, or rocket powered, and it may be the format you’ve chosen. Can you talk about narrative drive and the importance of it to developing a story?
I knew that I wanted to tell the story in two time periods, over the course of Maggie’s two trips to Ireland, but it was the unfolding story of the present-day disappearance that gave it the narrative drive I wanted it to have. I love mysteries about unsolved disappearances from the past, but it’s always a little tricky to make them feel vital and full of energy in the here and now. So the disappearance of a new woman and a ticking clock on saving her were the elements I needed to pump a lot of energy into Maggie’s investigation of the past.
And continuing with that question, you are writing this book with multiple timelines. How does that work, exactly? How do you piece together a seamless book while jumping back and forth in time?
There was a lot of back-and-forth, no pun intended! At one point the narrative unfolded in two different sections, one for each of the time periods, and then I played around with different ways of alternating the two different narratives. My agent, Esmond Harmsworth, and my editor, Kelley Ragland, were really helpful and had some insights about the structure that I missed because I was just too close to it.
This book is also a real character study—of the main character and of the missing woman, who as readers we only get to know through the impressions of other people as well as the memories of the main character. Can you talk about creating these two women?
Strangely, I think I had Erin first. Even though she doesn’t get nearly as many pages as Maggie, and she’s a cipher in many ways, she is the heart of the book because her disappearance is the catalyst for everything that happens. I had a sense of her right from the beginning. Maggie took longer because in many ways she spent the early years of her life defining herself in relation to Erin. So when Erin disappears, Maggie has to both find Erin and also find herself. She begins to define herself in Ireland, begins to become herself, but of course the tragic thing about that is that it only happens in Erin’s absence, it only can happen in Erin’s absence.
I’m still getting to know Maggie, to know who she is outside of the heightened events of The Mountains Wild. Luckily, I’m really enjoying it.
Finally, what's next? Will there be another Maggie D'Arcy book?
Yes! I’m trying to finish it right now. It’s been both challenging being on book deadline under lockdown, but also really comforting to have a fictional world to retreat to. I can’t say too much about it yet, except that it’s set on Long Island and in Ireland again and I’m having fun really giving Maggie a chance to shine as a detective, fully deputized and at the height of her powers. She’s struggling with a lot of things in her personal life, but I’m having fun letting her just kick some...you know what...when it comes to her job!
Sarah Stewart Taylor is the author of the Sweeney St. George series and the Maggie D'arcy series. She grew up on Long Island in New York, and was educated at Middlebury College in Vermont and Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. She now lives with her family on a farm in Vermont where they raise sheep and grow blueberries.