The Ranger begins with, waddaya know, an Army Ranger named Quinn Colson returning home to Tibbehah County in northern Mississippi to bury his uncle, the county sheriff. Turns out the guy offed himself but Quinn’s not so sure. Seems the county has changed quite a bit since he left, what with all the shady land developers trying to squeeze out homeowners and Aryan Brotherhood-connected meth labs having sprouted up everywhere, could be some of those guys had a hand in the sheriff’s death. So Quinn, with the help of his army buddy Boom and tomboy deputy Lillie, goes searching for the truth and quickly finds himself up to his neck in corruption and, you know, fucking bodies.
All I’ve read of Ace Atkins’ work previously is last year’s Infamous, his brutal historical fiction novel about the Texas Rangers hunting down George “Machine Gun” Kelly and his gang in the 1930’s and, good lord, did I ever love the shit out of that one, dear reader. The Ranger is the start of a series for Atkins and there’s no getting around that it is a far more middle-boiled piece of fiction than that previous effort. But though it is definitely not my usual speed, the lead character too noble and the story more traditional mystery-ish than what I normally eat up, The Ranger does a helluiva job at being solid middle-boiled entertainment.
The real draw here is the world that Atkins has created. His Tibbehah County feels lived in and real, like you really could stroll into that VFW and have a beer with Judge Blanton and Mr. Jim, like you could walk through the kudzu-choked forest and find the AB compound all-day party filled with meth-head kids and drunks. Like Justified’s Harlan County, this is a rich and interestingly backwoods place that will no doubt lead to a bunch of fun stories down the line.
Also reminding me of Justified is the story’s true “modern western” structure. Lots of crime novels are essentially modern westerns (just look at almost all of George Pelecanos’ work) but Atkins really makes references crystal clear. You’ve got the drunk and crazy Gowrie terrorizing the town with his cronies, the sneaky land developers backing his mayhem and trying to buy up the quiet little town, and the white-hat-but-justifiably-violent good guy riding in to clean up the mess.
Like I said, Quinn is a little too white hat for the Nerd, but I wouldn’t be opposed to trying this series again. Atkins has the start of something good here, and his plotting is beautifully assured, the tension sustained nicely and the twists well-spaced and never too crazy. Here’s hoping, for the Nerd’s twisted-ass sake anyway, that some darker shadings are given to our hero the next go-around. But for everyone else’s sake? I would happily hand The Ranger to a regular ol’ thriller fan, assuring them of a good time ahead.