Nick Travers, who made his first appearance in Crossroad Blues
, is a musicologist in the Alan Lomax tradition--a blues historian who teaches at Tulane and devotes his spare time to tracking down the forgotten greats of the past. He's been trying to line up an interview with one of them: Ruby Walker, a '50s blues songstress who's been in an Illinois prison for 40 years for murdering her lover. Ruby finally agrees to talk to Nick--if
he'll look into the circumstances of the crime for which she was unjustly convicted. That takes Nick back to Chicago at Christmas, and sets him on the trail of a legendary, mythic figure named Stagger Lee, who's not a myth after all, but a man with a deadly secret and no compunction about killing to keep it hidden.
Nick's hopeless love affair with Kate, first met in author Ace Atkins' previous suspense story, gets a reprise here, too. Now an investigative reporter with a Windy City paper, she teams up with Nick to find out what really happened and spring Ruby from jail. What makes this otherwise routine mystery interesting is Nick's (and the author's) encyclopedic knowledge and deep appreciation of his subject (music, not murder). The pacing is pretty slow. If you put a little Muddy Waters on the stereo, you won't mind stopping to hear a particularly sweet riff before you start reading again. --Jane Adams
From Kirkus Reviews
Nick Travers, pro footballer turned academic, is back for his second riff as the blues historian with dynamite in his fists. This time out he leaves his Tulane University home base en route for Chicago to interview legendary songbird Ruby Walker (the Sweet Black Angel), who some think topped even Bessie Smith as the greatest blues lady of them all. Nick won't have any trouble locating her, he knows, since for the past 40 years she's bunked in an Illinois state prison. Convicted of murdering her manager/lover, downtrodden Ruby has been virtually sphinxlike while serving a life sentence--no interviews, almost no communication with anyone. But much to Nick's surprise she's expressed a desire to see him. She wants more than that, he soon learns: she wants him to put on his Sherlock cap and prove her innocence. She's heard about him, she says, heard how he helped others (Crossroad Blues, 1998). Hope can be mean, she tells him, but thanks to him, she has hold of it again. Nick finds her irresistible, of course, and begins an investigation that takes him deep into the sad, bad world of blues musicians, where he encounters dirty secrets, ugly lies, a former lover, and a demented though dedicated murderer. In the end, however, he does give Ruby a little to smile about.Atkins loves his blues musicians and writes eloquently about them, but the beat of his pacing, bogged down in backstory, can be the most funereal feature of this murderous tale. -- Copyright © 2000 Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.