By Beth Gooch of The Commercial Appeal
July 8, 2016
Ace Atkins' latest Quinn Colson story traverses the Mississippi-Tennessee line like a daily commuter, and also crisscrosses fiction and factual events.
Like any good novel set in Mississippi, "The Innocents" is peopled with a passel of carefully drawn characters.
In addition to the war hero-turned lawman Colson, there's the taciturn sheriff, Lillie; a tough-but-smart strip club owner; a tattooed meth addict; an old woman with a shotgun, a self-righteous preacher and a beloved high school football coach.
They shop at Wal-Mart, eat wings, drive four-wheelers and, when crossed, threaten to call Morgan & Morgan. The teens wear baggy pants and drive up to Whitehaven for excitement.
One character bears a chilling resemblance to recent headlines — a young woman found late at night walking down a lonely highway. The trucker who calls 911 has no trouble spotting her in the darkness. She's on fire.
Like the real-life murder of fair-haired Jessica Chambers in 2014, the blonde character is found near her car, and a flammable liquid has been poured down her mouth. And just like Chambers, the character is rushed to the Regional Medical Center, where she dies.
In an email interview, Atkins, who lives in Oxford, Mississippi, answered a few questions:
A murder that occurs in "The Innocents" has a number of similarities to that of Jessica Chambers. How did Jessica's story influence you?
Living in this area, you can't help but be affected by the Chambers murder. I covered crime for many years in Florida as a journalist, and I never heard of anything so horrible. While the book was influenced by the crime, this book is in no way the Jessica Chambers story. This became really a mashup of the crime itself and the Dwight Bowling molestation case in Smithville.
Did you talk to Jessica's parents or other people involved with the case?
I did not. The crime itself was the leaping-off point for "The Innocents" but I wanted to keep truth and fiction separate. Milly Jones is not Jessica Chambers. She and her father came straight out of Faulkner's world. I did speak to a few law enforcement officers who knew about Chambers' case and felt it would never be solved. About the time I was finishing the novel, someone was charged. I do hope the family can finally get some closure in this. Although there will never be comfort for this horrific crime. (Quinton Tellis, the man accused of setting Chambers afire, will have his first Mississippi court appearance Friday.)
The characters in your story make several references to Memphis. Did you do much research in the city?
Memphis is my second home. It's one of the reasons I moved to the Mid-South. I love the city, the people and the history. All my Quinn Colson novels have a big helping of Memphis in them. One of my favorite memories is getting to see a wrestling showdown and rap concert within a few weeks at the Mid-South Coliseum. You can't beat this place!
Ace Atkins will sign copies of "The Innocents"
July 12, 5-6:30 p.m., Square Books, Oxford, Mississippi
July 25, 6:30-8 p.m., The Booksellers at Laurelwood, 387 Perkins Extended
Beth Gooch is a copy editor and night web manager at The Commercial Appeal.