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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
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Ace Atkins, local reporter turned novelist
Whatever happened to . . .
By Colette Bancroft, Times Book Editor
Published March 9, 2008
THE STORY: As a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times, Ace Atkins came across a slew of intriguing stories. One that haunted him was the unsolved 1955 murder of Tampa organized crime figure Charlie Wall. After switching from journalism to fiction and writing four successful detective novels set in New Orleans, Atkins based his 2006 novel White Shadow on the Wall case.
FROM THE STORY: Atkins' novel is populated with many other real Tampa area characters: gangsters like Santo Trafficante Jr. (one of Wall's chief rivals) and Johnny "Scarface" Rivera, sideshow performers Al and Jeanie Tomaini, police detectives and city officials, wrestlers and restaurateurs.
And it is full of the sights and sounds and flavors of a Tampa that has nearly vanished. Atkins' characters crisscross an Ybor City full of families, a Beach Park still under construction and stretches of orange groves between downtown and Gandy Boulevard.
THE REST OF THE STORY: The success of White Shadow allowed Atkins, 37, to write another historical novel, Wicked City, which will be published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on April 10. The book is based on real people and events in Phenix City, Ala., which in the 1950s was called "the wickedest city in America" by Look magazine, thanks to its corruption and wide-open vice.
"Phenix City is a town about 20 miles from where I went to high school, in Auburn," Atkins says, "so I had always heard about it. I became intrigued with the idea of this little corner of Southern history being so awful."
His research for the novel led him close to home: "My paternal grandfather was a bootlegger. That's how he supported the family," and he did a lot of business in Phenix City. What's more, Atkins' maternal grandfather, an Alabama Highway Department employee, was a go-between for famously corrupt Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom. "When my mother read the book, she said, 'I know these people.' She remembered these deals being discussed around the table when she was a child."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT: Atkins lives on a farm outside Oxford, Miss., with his wife, former St. Petersburg Times reporter Angela Moore, and their baby son. He is finishing his next novel, based on the notorious 1920s trials of actor Fatty Arbuckle. "It was the first big celebrity scandal," Atkins says, and just the kind of story he loves: "It allows me to be a reporter and a novelist."