WHITE SHADOW by Ace Atkins
Review by Mike Dennis, 2010
Ever heard of Charlie Wall? Me, either. Do you care that he was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat while having his throat slit in 1955? I didn’t think so.
Well, if you lived in Tampa back in those days, you damn well knew who Charlie Wall was, and his death was about as cataclysmic in that city as the Kennedy Assassination would be for the rest of us some eight years later. His murder, and its subsequent investigation, form the core of White Shadow, Ace Atkins’ shattering historical novel (2006) about the Tampa underworld of that time.
Turns out old Charlie ran the local rackets, which is to say he ran Tampa, for about thirty years until he was forced into retirement around 1950 by “the Sicilians”, as they were referred to.
These Sicilians were led by Santo Trafficante, who in 1950 was about to retire himself and hand the city (and the state of Florida) over to his son, Santo Jr. By 1955, they were in firm control of things and had major interests in Havana as well, dealing directly with Cuban president Fulgencio Batista.
But beneath all the criminal goings-on in this book is the raucus day-to-day life in Ybor City, Tampa’s Cuban quarter. Atkins’ vivid writing puts you on Ybor’s streets, where you can hear jazz piano or Latin orchestra music flowing out of every smoky bar and restaurant, where you can inhale the tantalizing aroma of Cuban food wafting through the air, where you can see men strutting around with their dark oiled hair and pointed-toe shoes, and where you can almost touch the curvy women in their tight dresses.
Filled with cigar factories and bars, Ybor City is the Casablanca of the 1950s. To the outsider, it looks like it’s wide open, with gambling and prostitution operating undisguised. In fact, however, it’s the place where deals are made in back booths, where deaths are ordered, where secrets are kept. Where, as Atkins says, you can see “shoppers in straw hats and two-tone shoes”, walking literally above the still-open tunnels through which Charlie Wall transported his liquor to the local bars during Prohibition.
White Shadow is more than just a novel based on a true crime. It’s a game-changer, a stunning travelogue through an era long gone, filled with memorable characters and wonderful period detail, eerily reminiscent of James Ellroy’s LA Quartet novels. As the labyrinthine investigation, led by Tampa detective Ed Dodge, plodded along, I got so I didn’t really care who killed Charlie Wall. I just wanted to be endlessly escorted around the streets and bars and hotels of Ybor City and Havana. I wanted to stop in at the Columbia Restaurant for some pollo a la plancha. I wanted to hear Cuban Spanish spoken. I wanted to become more acquainted with guys like Baby Joe Diez and Scarface Johnny Rivera and movie actor George Raft (even Fidel Castro makes an appearance).
And yes, I wish I could’ve had one drink with old Charlie Wall before he went to the hereafter.