In "Crossroad Blues", Ace Atkins examined the legend and music of Robert Johnson, essentially taking a real man and making him fictional. In "Leavin' Trunk Blues", Atkins, casts blues myth Stagger Lee as a character, essentially taking a fictional man and making him real.
Stagger Lee is the name of a number of blues and jazz standards about a tough Chicago man who gambles with, then murders, a fellow named Billy (usually Lyons). The stories are always the same, though a number of different artists, from Lloyd Price to Wilson Pickett, from the Grateful Dead to Nick Cave, have taken ownership of the song by switching around events, tempos, names, details. But the centerpiece is still the evil, dangerous, magnetic Stagger Lee.
In Ace Atkins' version, Stagger Lee is all the evil in Chicago's south side rolled into a single man, and Billy Lyons was the manager of a female blues artist, Ruby Walker, known as "the Sweet Black Angel". When Billy turned up dead, the Black Angel was accused of his murder and went to prison for life.
Enter Nick Travers, blues historian, amateur detective and old softy. When Ruby asks Nick to help her find out who killed Billy and get her out of jail, Nick jumps right in, meeting famous blues musicians, beautiful, knife-wielding assassins and Stagger Lee himself, taking time along the way to take a dig at that little blond kid who thinks he plays the blues but isn't old enough to know what they are.
Ace Atkins writes well. He's toned down a lot of the purple prose that marred "Crossroad Blues" and here concentrates on good, solid description and storytelling. His evocation of the blues, the life, the players, are all spot on and he makes you feel the desperation in the hearts of the people who migrated to Chicago in order to find a better life, only to find the projects and poverty. He makes you want to listen to every name that he drops. When he's good, he's very, very good.
But his hold on good is a little spotty. Atkins depends too heavily on internal monologue, too often writing in sentence fragments that he seems thinks make sense and allow the reader into the mind of the character. They don't. Instead, they seem like the author was too lazy to finish his sentences and the editor was too lazy to correct him.
The two female assassins, who could have been the most interesting characters, are written as comedy relief, with Annie carrying on a love affair with her butcher knife "Willie" and fantasizing about moving to Riverdale, home of Archie & pals. Petie Wheatstraw, a blues hanger-on is also written a little on the cartoon-ey side. And I find it hard, even when suspending disbelief, to accept that the police can't find and catch the "biggest black man [Nick] had ever seen", Stagger Lee, especially when he commits murders in broad daylight and everyone knows where he lives. Large parts of this book could not have happened if the laws of logic had not been repealed.
That said, Nick himself is a fine character, written with the right touch of vulnerability and strength, music geek knowledge and girl stupidity. His amour, Kate, is brash and smart, with just the right amount of softness. And Dirty Jimmy is one of the most fun characters I've come across in a while.
Atkins' mysteries won't win any awards for originality and they won't knock your socks off as literature. But they are a wonderful way to pass some hours and learn about old blues while being entertained.