Far away from The Hanging’s bleak and silent falling rain is the steady grey drizzle that greets Quinn Colson, an army ranger returning to life in fictional Tibbehah County in remote North Mississippi, heading south on the highway in a truck he bought in Phenix City, Alabama. A US Army rucksack sits beside him, stuffed with enough clothes for a week along with a sweet Colt .44 Anaconda he won in a poker game.
Colson is the protagonist in Ace Atkins’s The Ranger (Corsair, 339pp, $24.99), the first in what’s certain to be a hugely popular series, with its echoes of Lee Child, Greg Iles, CJ Box and Urban Waite.
When Waite’s The Terror of Living arrived a year or so ago, something about it said “read me now”, maybe the echoes of James Lee Burke and Cormac McCarthy that came off the first few pages. Atkins, a former crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune, writes the same kind of fate-laden poetry as those gents and a touch of what may be called country gothic (though some call it redneck noir), and the new novel is another one-sit read. Colson returns to a place where corruption is rife, his mother is still playing Elvis Presley’s version of How Great Thou Art on the stereo, tipsy on margaritas and gospel, and his uncle, Korean War veteran Hampton Beckett, is being lowered into the ground to the sounds of a 21-gun salute.
The cops say the old man stumbled with a .44 in his hand, contemplating the world as damned unlivable, and checked himself out. Learning his uncle was almost certainly murdered – the .44 way out of reach and an entry point that wouldn’t make sense to a blind man – he’s determined to find the truth. But his quest is complicated by a pregnant girl of 16 with a sweet little peashooter she’s stolen from her grandmother, a sister who has become a lap dancer, and Lillie Virgil from the local sheriff’s office, once a cop in Memphis, returned to local town Jericho because her mother is dying of cancer.
Atkins’s prose is spare and poetic, full of telling detail, his influences as diverse as Burt Reynolds films, Dashiell Hammett and the crime fiction of William Faulkner. (The novel comes with an endorsement from Elmore Leonard: “Atkins can run rings around most of the names in the crime field.”)
“I always wanted to work on a novel that felt like an old Johnny Cash ballad – a soldier returning home to town, unrequited love, guns and violence,” Atkins says, and he listened to a lot of Cash and loads of outlaw country when coming up with the background of Quinn Colson. The Ranger ain’t pretty but it should go to the top of your next pile, a novel of hard-edged character and a distinctive sense of place.