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Atkins puts big hero in small town
"The Ranger," by Ace Atkins (Putnam, $25.95) Former Tampa Tribune reporter Ace Atkins inaugurates a new crime series, and a new hero, with "The Ranger." With Quinn Colson, Atkins has created one of the more intriguing protagonists in crime fiction, a small-town hell-raiser who's now a U.S. Army Ranger and Middle East combat veteran. Quinn returns to Tibbehah County, Miss., for the funeral of his uncle, the county sheriff, dead of a suicide.Not everyone thinks Quinn's Uncle Hamp did himself in, though. Among the doubters is Lillie Virgil, a tough, athletic deputy whose sexual orientation is prime fodder for small-town gossip. Helping sway Quinn toward Lillie's opinion is local sleazebag Johnny Stagg's questionable claim on Hamp's land. Quinn's got enough family problems already. His Hollywood stuntman father abandoned the family before Quinn left home. His Elvis-worshipping mother is raising her mixed-race grandson, Jason, in a town where racial lines are rarely crossed. Jason's mother, Quinn's sister, Caddy, has a wild streak a good deal more troubling than her brother's. She's a drug addict who abandoned her child for nearby Memphis. Caddy is symptomatic of Tibbehah County, which has deteriorated during Quinn's decade away. One of the few flourishing businesses is the Rebel Truck Stop, where meth-addicted girls service truckers in the comfort of their cabs. Supplying that noxious substance is Gowrie, a crazed and violent white supremacist with a taste for his own product. Gowrie has surrounded himself with a ragtag army that compensates for lack of sense with impressive artillery. Finding herself at Gowrie's encampment is Lena, pregnant by one of Gowrie's goons who is now in prison, who Colson nearly runs down when she is wandering in the middle of the road the night before Hamp's funeral. Quinn also encounters his high school girlfriend, Anna Lee, who left him for Luke, now the town's doctor. There's Wesley, Quinn's high school buddy, now the acting sheriff, thanks to qualifications not being a priority in Tibbehah County. There's also Wesley and Quinn's friend Boom, a deeply trouble veteran who, despite losing an arm in combat, still handles any caliber firearm with impressive accuracy. As Quinn and Lillie try to discover the truth about Hamp's death, they plow deeper and deeper into the corruption eating away at the county, which seems to have engulfed even the formerly stand-up citizens and maybe Hamp himself. In press materials for the book, Atkins says Tibbehah is an amalgam of several economically depressed counties near his Mississippi home. The scenes will be recognizable to anyone who has been through any similar small Southern town in the past five years or so: the firetrap strip clubs, boarded-up storefronts and a preponderance of check-cashing businesses. There's also the meth plague and its pathetic zombies, perched on the edge of violence, now a staple of small-town newspaper police reports. Atkins' prose is terse and pitiless, but with an overhang of sorrow for what these small towns have become. "The Ranger" moves as swiftly and surely as its hero, leaving enough tantalizing loose ends to ensure its readers will be clamoring for the next Quinn Colson installment, due next year.
Curtis Ross of St. Petersburg is a freelance writer.