Crossroad Blues (Nick Travers Series #1)by Ace Atkins
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On August 15, 1938, the most celebrated figure in blues history, Robert Johnson, was murdered outside a Greenwood, Mississippi, juke joint. More than 50 years after, a college professor, following rumors of nine unknown Johnson recordings, disappears in the Mississippi Delta. Blues historian Nick Travers leaves New Orleans to track down the missing professor -- and to unravel the greatest mystery in all of blues lore.
New York Times Book Review
The plotting is endlessly confusing, and the narration heavily laden with raw language and raw sex. But the author's energy, talent, and deep love of music will leave many readers looking forward to Atkins's next outing.
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JoJo's Blues Bar stood on the south edge of the French Quarter in a row of old Creole buildings made of decaying red brick, stucco, and wood. Inside, smoke streamed from small islands of tables, drinks clicked, women giggled, and fans churned. Black-and-white photographs of long-dead greats hung above the mahogany bar -- images faded and warped from humidity and time.
Dr. Randy Sexton stared at the row of faces as his thick coffee mug vibrated with the swampy electric slide guitar. He tapped one hand to the music and held his coffee with the other. The bucktoothed waitress who had brought the coffee shook her head walking away. This wasn't a coffee place. This was a beer and whiskey joint.
Order a mixed drink or coffee and you felt like a leper.
JoJo's. Last of the old New Orleans blues joints, Randy thought. Used to be a lot of them in the forties and fifties when he was growing up -- but now JoJo's was it. The Vieux Carre now just endless rows of strip joints, discos, and false jazz. Unless you counted that big franchise blues place down the street. Randy didn't.
This bar was a New Orleans institution you couldn't replace with high-neon gloss. The blues sound better in a venue of imperfection. A cracked ceiling. Scuffed floor. Peeling white paint on the bricks. It all somehow adds to the acoustics of blues.
Randy was a jazz man himself. Studied jazz all his life. His passion. Now, as the head of the Jazz and Blues Archives at Tulane University, he was the curator of thousands of African-American recordings.
But blues was something he could never really understand. It was the poor cousin to jazz, though the unknowledgeable thought they were the same. Jazz was a fluted glass of champagne. Blues was a cold beer. Working-class music.
His friend and colleague Nick Travers knew blues. He could pick out the region like Henry Higgins could pick out an accent: Chicago, Austin, Memphis, or Mississippi.
Mississippi. The Delta. He sipped some more hot black coffee and watched the great Loretta Jackson doing her thing.
A big, beautiful woman, a cross somewhere between Etta James and KoKo Taylor. Randy had seen the show countless times. He knew every rehearsed movement and all the big black woman's jokes by heart. But he still loved seeing her work her strong voice could fill a Gothic cathedral.
Her husband, Joseph Jose Jackson, pulled a chair up to the table. A legend himself. There wasn't a blues musician alive who didn't know about JoJo. A highly polished, dignified black man in his sixties. Silver-white hair and mustache. Starched white dress shirt, tightly creased black trousers, and shined wing tips.
"Doc-tor!" JoJo extended his rough hand.
"Mr. Jackson. Good to see you, my friend, and" -- Randy nodded toward the stage -- "your wife....She still raises the hair on the back of my neck"
"She can kick a crowd in the nuts," JoJo said.
Loretta sweated and dotted her brow with a red lace handkerchief to some sexy lyrics and winked down at JoJo.
rock me all night long.
Rock me baby,
like my back ain't got no bone."
They sat silent through the song. JoJo swayed to the music and smiled a wide, happy grin. A proud man in love. The next song was a slow ballad and Randy leaned forward on the wooden table, the smoke making his eyes water. JoJo cocked his ear toward him.
"I'm looking for Nick. Isn't he playing tonight?" Randy asked.
JoJo shook his head and frowned. "Nick? I don't know, he's been tryin' to get back in shape or some shit. Runnin' like a fool every mornin'. Acts like he's gonna go back and play for the Saints again. No sir, he ain't the same."
"He's not answering his phone or his door."
"When he don't want to be found," JoJo said, nodding his head for emphasis, "he ain't gonna be found."
"Could he be out of town? Maybe traveling with the band?"
"What?" JoJo asked, through the blare of the music.
"Traveling with the band!" Randy shouted.
"Naw. I ain't seen him. 'Cept the other day when we went and grabbed a snow cone. Started talkin' to some gap-toothed carriage driver 'bout him beatin' his horse. Nick said how'd he like to be cloppin-round wearin' a silly hat and listenin' to some fool talk all day. Skinny black fella started talkin' shit but he back down when he got a good look at Nick. I'm tellin' you man, Nick gettin' back in some kinda shape. Not much different than when he was playin'. You think he's considerin' it? Playin' ball again?"
"I doubt the Saints will take him back," Randy said, raising his eyebrows.
Nick had been thrown out of the NFL for kicking his coach's ass during a Monday Night Football game. He knocked the coach to the ground, emptied a Gatorade bucket on the man's head, and coolly walked into the tunnel as the crowd went crazy around him. Nick once told Randy he'd changed his clothes and taken a cab home before the game ended. He never returned to the Superdome or pro football again, and Randy never prodded him for the whole story.
A few months after the incident, Nick enrolled in the master's program at Tulane. Later, he earned a doctorate in Southern studies from the University of Mississippi before coming back to teach classes at Tulane.
"JoJo, tell him to call me if you guys talk."
"His band ain't playin' till...shit...Friday night," JoJo said. "What chu need Nick for?"
"Got a job for him."
"Yeah, put his sorry ass to work. Soon enough he'll be back to the same ol' same ol', drinkin' and smokin'."
At the foot of the bar, an old man watched the two talking. A cigar hung from his mouth as he brushed ashes from his corduroy jacket lined with scarlike patches. His gray eyes darted from JoJo to Randy, then back down to the drink in front of him.
"If you talk to him, tell him to call me," Randy said, getting up to leave and offering JoJo his hand. He knew JoJo would find Nick; he was the man's best friend.
Randy took another sip of coffee and stood watching Loretta. She had a drunk tourist on stage and was getting him to hold her big satin-covered hips as she sang the nasty blues. The old man at the bar watched her too, his face flat and expressionless. His black, parched skin the same texture as the worn photographs on the wall.
Randy and the man's eyes met, then the old man looked away
"One of our colleagues left for the Delta a few weeks ago," Randy said. "He's disappeared."
CROSSROAD BLUES. Copyright (c) 1998 by Ace Atkins. Published by St. Martin's Press, Inc. New York, NY
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Meet the Author
Ace Atkins is the author of seven novels, including his latest, Devil's Garden (April 2009, Putnam). A former journalist who cut his teeth as a crime reporter in the newsroom of The Tampa Tribune, he published his first novel, Crossroad Blues, at 27 and became a full-time novelist at 30.
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Crossroad Blues is the story of Nick Travers, an ex-New Orleans Saints player turned blues historian and his search for the lost recordings of Robert Johnson. This fast-paced mystery is a throwback to another era; not only 1938 and the murder of Robert Johnson after he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the blues, but to an era of hard-boiled mysteries and dialogue that cracks like a whip. Ace Atkins has captured a real sense of place with Crossroad Blues. It is set in both New Orleans and the Mississippi Delta and each page is flavored with both of these unique and intriguing places. Every chapter reads like a well-researched travelogue through the Delta, blues music, and the gritty vibrations of the French Quarter. The references to blues history are flawless and the feel of the South sizzles throughout the story. Within a few pages, I knew I'd found my favorite new author and can't wait to read more of Nick Travers and Ace Atkins. If you are a lover of noir mysteries and southern literature you will LOVE Crossroad Blues. Victoria Allman author of: SEAsoned: A Chef's Journey with Her Captain
Well written-wonderful imagery-good, well developed characters. I swear I could feel the New Orleans and delta humidity while I was reading this.
Nick Travers is a great character! An awesome character like Nick, a good mystery plot, and the blues...what more could you want how about some decent editing. It really distracts the reader from the story when the editing is this bad. Missing words I understand but missing sentences just sucks.
I picked this novel up at a garage sale for 25 cents and have been hooked ever since. Highly recommend his books for pleasure reading and plain old entertainment.