Monday, April 8, 2013


Few people outside of those who have lived in Tampa seem to know of its vibrant, diverse culture and violent, often troubled past. A unique mix of Latin (Spanish, Cuban), Italian, Cracker, African American (with a sprinkling of other backgrounds thrown in) produced a special place regionally and historically. Racist, conservative whites shared the streets with radical, leftist cigar workers. A thriving port, nearby farms and groves (strawberries, guava, citrus, cattle), and industrial city (initially cigars) attracted as well thousands of tourists and travelers. And during the early twentieth century Tampa’s loose control of gambling, liquor, and prostitution garnered interest from organized crime, ranging from Mafia types, homegrown toughs, and  international interests. Corruption was rampant from the highest levels of government on down. With such an interesting and varied milieu, it is strange that so few novels have set their action in the city and county (Hillsborough).  From 1970 until 1989 I lived in this wonderful town (actually just outside of it), and was captured by its history and people. Not to mention Cuban sandwiches that I passionately love. In college I studied history, and my master’s covered the Depression era on the west coast of Florida (primarily focusing on Tampa, however). I love Ybor City. It is this background that almost guaranteed that I would read Ace Atkins’ White Shadow (2007), a historical thriller that closely follows the investigation into the murder of bolita (gambling) kingpin and local legend Charlie Wall in 1955. Almost every page brought to mind a sight, sound, or taste to my memory, and even included individuals I had met or knew about. Atkins obviously did a lot of research to get the background right, and even when he takes liberties with the actual story (for literary purposes) he reveals a complicated time and place as accurately as any I have read. The story is told through the eyes of a young newspaperman, as well as in third person following the detective who is determined to catch the culprit(s). Into the mix is thrown a young radical Cuban girl, who after seeking revenge for the murder of her father, gets mixed up in gangster activities and lands among the colorful community carved out by retired carnival workers (many of them sideshow performers) in the southern boundary of the county. Some of the action also takes place in Havana. Real-life larger than life characters from Santo Trafficante, Fidel Castro, to lesser-known cops, bartenders, reporters and prostitutes fill the pages. Although locals will enjoy this book, I also think snowbirds and other northerners will like it as well. I think it is time to go back home for a visit.

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