“And the days keep on worryin’ me
Of a hellhound on my trail…”
Robert Johnson
“Hellhound On My Trail”

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Ace Atkins’ debut novel, Crossroad Blues. The book was first published when Atkins was 27 years old and worked as a journalist for the Tampa Tribune. The 2023 edition contains a new cut-throat ending. 

Atkins went on to write twenty-eight other books and landed on the New York Times best-seller list many times. He was an Edgar finalist on three occasions and earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for crime reporting. The great Elmore Leonard once said about Atkins, “He can write rings around most of the names in the crime field.”

Blues legend B.B. King compared Crossroad Blues to “a classic song–the right feeling, the right note, at the right time.” The story revolves around Nick Travers, an ex-New Orleans Saints football player working as a blues historian at Tulane University. A colleague rumored to be searching for nine unheard Robert Johnson recordings disappears in Leflore County, Mississippi, and Travers sets out to find him. Travers soon discovers hellhounds are on his trail…  

Robert Johnson’s eerie voice, haunting lyrics and masterful guitar prowess rank him as the most influential bluesmen of all time. Johnson only recorded twenty-nine songs before his death at 27. According to legend, Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads near Highways 49 and 61. Johnson died on August 16, 1938. Some say he was poisoned by a jealous husband at a juke joint called Three Forks.

Crossroad Blues submerges the reader into Mississippi’s thick August humidity while revisiting landmarks where Johnson spent time. Atkins weaves the facts about Robert Johnson around the book’s fictional characters who travel between Memphis, New Orleans and Greenwood, Mississippi, where Johnson spent his final days. Nick Travers discovers Greenwood may also be the location Johnson stashed his last nine recordings. Atkins’ sharp skill for detail, dialogue, and drama propel the reader straight to the crossroads where one’s soul may be at hazard. It’s a modern detective story of the highest order.

Crossroad Blues contains memorable characters like the sexy, red-headed guitarist Virginia Dare, the Elvis look-a-like killer Jesse Garon, kind-hearted law man Willie Brown, criminal hipster Pascal Cruz and Travers’ close friend JoJo Jackson. These characters resort to dangerous measures while seeking truth, wealth or peace through their quest to obtain these “lost” Johnson recordings. 

Atkins captures how little the rural Mississippi landscape has changed in the eighty years since Johnson’s death. Atkins doesn’t have to employ time travel as this passage reveals while Nick Travers drives down the highway:

“Mississippi Delta driving is about the white dots of cotton stretched forever flat like tiny points of an impressionist painting. It’s about crooked crosses of wooden electric poles that edge the two-lane highway lined with farm supply stores, barbecue joints, squat, cone-topped silos, and windowless, burned-out 1930s gas stations. It’s the deep maroon of a rusted tin roof above a weathered clapboard shack and the skeleton of a sun-parched tree, dead rooted in stagnant water. Or fallen cotton caught in highway gravel.”

I’d wager Crossroad Blues counts as the finest novel based on Robert Johnson. And I’ve read a few. I read Crossroad Blues when it was first published, and two decades later this revised edition hits harder with the new ending. In a recent interview I asked Atkins about the new twist: “Virginia Dare was always the end game with the story. It was the ending I envisioned when I was writing it. I just didn’t follow through with it back then.”

In any era, Crossroad Blues stands as a powerful debut by one of America’s finest writers. 

Ace Atkins’ new book, Don’t Let The Devil Ride, will be published in July 2024.


Official Ace Atkins Website

The Redeemers by Ace Atkins