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True Southern Crime: Ace Atkins and Tibbehah County

Local writer Ace Atkins is readying himself for the launch of “The Sinners,” the eighth book in his bestselling Quinn Colson series.

Set in the fictional Tibbehah County, Atkins’ latest novel continues the saga of Sheriff Quinn Colson with a little Wild West-style violence, a little small-town familiarity and a whole lot of Southern grit. Citing Oxford’s favorite son William Faulkner as one of his greatest inspirations, Atkins said Tibbehah is the quintessential North Mississippi town – on the surface.

“Tibbehah is not unlike Marshall County or Calhoun County or even Yalobusha County. There’s a town square, a Sonic Drive-In, a dollar store, just a pretty typical North Mississippi town,” Atkins said. “There is more intrigue, I think, in some of the small communities than you can find in a big city.”

Atkins played football in the early 1990s for an undefeated Auburn University team before working as a correspondent for the St. Petersburg Times and a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune. Although he always knew he wanted to be a professional writer, he said it wasn’t until he entered the world of journalism that he found his true niche.

Reporting on crimes, he said, is the best way to really get to know a community – who the major leaders are, how the career criminals portray themselves, where to go and where to avoid. A crime reporter through-and-through (he even met his wife while they were covering the same story for different publications), Atkins said he applies the same writing skills to his novels.

“I don’t write mysteries, I don’t write super thrillers or ticking time-clock stuff,” he said. “I really just write about crime and the people who are affected by it in the community, and I find that a really interesting viewpoint when talking about the modern South.”

One thing Atkins said readers won’t see in his work, however, is what he likes to call “moonlight and magnolias” – an idyllic representation of the South, complete with pastoral scenes and waifish Southern Belles sipping mint juleps on wrap-around porches.

Instead, the Alabama native said he prefers to view Tibbehah the way a journalist writes – about the good, the bad and the ugly. Along with Faulkner, Atkins said Flannery O’Connor is another influence upon his work. Her use of the grotesque – the fascinatingly weird or abnormal qualities that identify a character – is something Atkins said he emulates.

In terms of the readability of his novels, Atkins said he likes to think of them as a long-arc television show. Sure, a person can read them out of order, or pick a book up in the middle of the series, but they’re so much better if a reader treats each book like its own season of a television show, he said.

“The Quinn Colson books are kind of like an R-rated version of the Andy Griffith Show,” Atkins said. “It’s definitely more Quentin Tarantino than ‘Steel Magnolias’ or ‘Fried Green Tomatoes.’”

Atkins is in the midst of writing the ninth novel in the Quinn Colson series. He wouldn’t reveal much, but said readers will be pleased to know many recurring storylines are coming to a head.

Resolution doesn’t always equal a finite end, however. One of the greatest lessons Atkins said he learned in football is to always prepare for the next season. As such, he said he has no plans to leave Tibbehah or its sheriff any time soon.

“Somebody asked me, ‘How many more books are you going to write?’” he said. “One of my inspirations is, the sheriff here, Buddy East, has been sheriff as long as I’ve been alive. The fact that he’s been on the job that long and is still working gives me confidence that I’ll be writing about Quinn for quite some time.”

“The Sinners” is Atkins’ 23rd novel. Another of his books, “Wonderland,” which is a continuation of the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series, was recently picked up by Netflix as a full-length feature film. Mark Wahlberg will star as the titular character.

Atkins will be hosting a reading and signing event for “The Sinners” on Tuesday, July 17 at 5 p.m. at Off Square Books.