Twenty-two years after he covered a memorable crime as a reporter for the Tampa Tribune, Ace Atkins uses it as the chassis for his latest novel, a propulsive chase narrative called The Heathens.
“After you’ve been up close to it,” Atkins says, “been in a courtroom with Valessa Robinson, a case like that stays with you.”
The Heathens is Atkins’ 28th novel, and his 11th about Mississippi Sheriff Quinn Colson. It’s populated with the vivid Southern characters of Atkins’ fictional Tibbehah County. Colson’s job this time is to capture a fierce teenage girl named T.J. Byrd, who is on the run after the grisly murder of her mother, Gina. T.J. didn’t kill Gina but has an idea who did — and knows she’s likely to be framed for it. With her little brother, her boyfriend and her best friend, T.J. takes off in the friend’s mother’s minivan. The kids have no money and no plan other than driving west, but T.J. is determined to tell her story. Colson thinks she’s innocent, too, and hopes to find her before her escape turns into disaster, but some very bad people have other ideas.
Most of that story is fictional, but the real case Atkins built on was the 1998 murder of Vicki Robinson of Tampa. Robinson’s daughter Valessa, then 15, angry because her mother disapproved of her relationship with 19-year-old Adam “Rattlesnake” Davis, conspired with Davis and another teen, Jon Whispel, to kill Vicki Robinson. They tried injecting her with bleach and, when that didn’t work, Davis stabbed her to death. After leaving her body in a garbage can in the woods, the three fled with her car and credit cards.
They were captured after a high-speed chase in Texas. All three were convicted in Vicki Robinson’s death. Valessa was released from prison in 2013, Whispel in 2019. In May, Davis’ death sentence was changed to life without parole.
Atkins talked about the case and The Heathens via Zoom. The interview has been edited for length.
Did you cover the Valessa Robinson case?
It was right when I was transitioning into the downtown newsroom, and there were two big things going on. There was the Hank Earl Carr case; they sent me to Ohio to do a profile on him. And then Valessa came right after that. I was there for the jury selection and filled in a few days of the trial.
I was already a published novelist then, but for the things I was working on very early, I wasn’t really using these stories. It was years later that I thought, wow, those are really major things. I was too close to it.
The whole genesis of The Heathens was the idea of the kids being on the run, the kids stealing a car. But I was also trying to do something different from the actual case: What if they were innocent?
There were questions in the newsroom and among the cops very early on — was Valessa coerced, was she kidnapped by Davis and Whispel, was she held against her will? But there weren’t a lot of other suspects. They zeroed in on the kids pretty early.
Then it turned into this whole road trip. They were in Texas, the marshals were chasing them, they got their tires shot out. But as a novelist I was thinking, what if they didn’t do it?
Had you heard that in May, Adam Davis was back in court? His sentence was changed to life without parole; he had been on death row.
It was a horrific, horrific crime, and such a random event. Rattlesnake Davis — how can you go wrong with a boyfriend named Rattlesnake? T.J. Byrd is very different from Valessa, and her boyfriend is actually a pretty nice guy, a good-hearted kid.
One big difference is Valessa’s socioeconomic status — she lived in Carrollwood, her mother was a real estate agent.
That was a factor in it becoming a nationally covered case.
There was really a sense of “this could happen to you.” For people in the suburbs, there was this idea that your daughter could turn on you at any time.
I remember Valessa coming into the courtroom in her cardigan. I think she had pearls. She looked like a schoolgirl, but she’d been very involved in the Ybor City scene. And Rattlesnake Davis had been in and out of juvie — he was very rough.
My wife, Angela (who was a reporter at the time for the then-St. Petersburg Times), was able to go to the coffee shop where they hung out, a Joffrey’s in Carrollwood, and talk to some of the kids who knew them. Angela was right out of college but looked like a high school kid, so she could get the kids to talk to her. Angela interviewed Adam’s uncle, who had tried to set him straight.
So this is something we’ve talked about in my house for a long time. I was finally able to use it with my Mississippi characters.
In The Heathens, you shift the story to characters from a very different background, and you also set it in the near present. Can you talk about how that changes it?
I was interested not so much in the crime itself as the teenagers on the run: How would they survive by their wits, how would they deal with being falsely accused?
Of course it’s a very different story to tell now because it’s coming in 2021, with social media. How would the Valessa case have played out if they’d been on Instagram and Twitter?
That access to social media makes this a very modern story about how T.J. and Ladarius (her boyfriend) are able to get their story out.
I have to ask: Did you work backward from the social media handle FreeByrd and then name your character T.J. Byrd?
No, no, that was just part of my idea about how she would be spinning this. I can see those FreeByrd hats and T-shirts selling like crazy, though.
Valessa, had she been innocent, would have had access to other ways to fight back. T.J. doesn’t. She’s very poor, her mother is an addict, she’s basically running things herself and raising her brother. All that heightens the chance that nobody would listen to her.
In the same way that Valessa’s story was attractive to people because she was a middle-class white girl, that this could happen to you, T.J. is someone who could be forgotten and eaten up by the system.
I liked the fact that, although T.J. is a sympathetic character, she’s also a hardass, and you don’t soften her.
That makes me think of talking to movie people. Movie people are always saying, “Why do we like these people? Why are we rooting for them? Could you give her a dog?”
I wish that every novelist could have the benefit of being in a newsroom at some point, of writing about real characters, real people.
I’ve got to have the characters. I don’t give a damn when I’m reading some twisty, intricate, overly plotted novel if the characters are stick figures.
I’m not trying to write The Woman in the Trailer. I need characters.
This is your 11th novel about Quinn Colson, the sheriff of Tibbehah County. Most of the books are set mainly in that fictional place, but this one goes outside it. Can you talk about that?
I think I had the idea for Tibbehah County before I had Quinn Colson, or at about the same time. Living here in Oxford, Mississippi, you can’t walk 2 feet without being influenced by William Faulkner. I really wanted a North Mississippi county to call my own, to write about, to see it grow and change.
Much like the Raymond Chandler model (of Los Angeles detective Philip Marlowe), Tibbehah County, North Mississippi, that’s the Quinn Colson beat. I don’t think I’ll ever have a Quinn Colson book where he goes to France. Maybe I’ll have a great idea and eat my words. He goes to Memphis once in a while.
The Heathens was a way to break out of just Tibbehah County and do something wider and bigger, see how the series works beyond the county line.
I was glad to see you bring back a recurring villain who’s been missing from the last several books, the gleefully despicable Johnny Stagg. How did you come up with the idea of him turning the site of his former strip club into a kiddie attraction called Frontier Village?
I love Johnny Stagg. A buddy of mine called him “the redneck Moriarty.” He has spent the last several books in novel jail, but after federal prison he can’t just come back and run his strip club. The whole idea of his parole is that he’s found religion, he’s a changed man.
In Oxford there used to be a place called Pirate World. It had bouncy houses, video games, you could get a slice of pizza for $5. It was basically a knockoff Chuck E. Cheese. I took my kids there.
So I thought Johnny could run a place like that. That led to research, and one of the things I had to research was the repair of bouncy houses. Of course, everything goes back to Florida. It turns out all bouncy house repairs are done in Florida.
As hard as I’ve tried to get out of Florida, it’s like The Godfather: It pulls you back.
By Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 416 pages, $27