The Innocents by Ace Atkins: A review
And now for something completely different. At least different from all the literary fiction I've been reading lately.
No one could accuse Ace Atkins of writing literary fiction, but his books are well-written and are fast-paced reads. The Innocents, the latest in his Mississippi noir series featuring ex-Army Ranger Quinn Colson, is no exception.
I enjoy reading this series, first because it is well-written and carefully plotted, but also because I know from my childhood growing up in the area that Atkins writes about that he's got the place just right. The cadences of speech, the interactions between people, the insularity of that society, Atkins, who still lives in Oxford, Mississippi, understands it all and he writes about it with clear-eyed vision while retaining his empathy for his characters who live in this hidebound place. Which is all probably just a long way of saying that Atkins' characters are believable, and that is some of the highest praise you can give a writer.
As we meet Quinn Colson this time around, he has recently returned from Afghanistan where he had been working under a contract to train the Afghanis in police work. He took this job after he had lost the election for sheriff.
But almost as soon as the new sheriff was sworn in, he was killed. That left Colson's friend and chief deputy Lillie Virgil in charge and she is still the acting sheriff.
Colson returns to the messed up personal life that he had left behind. He's still carrying on his affair with a married woman, who is now talking divorce from her husband. His long estranged father, Jason, is back in town and has big dreams about establishing a dude ranch on property adjoining Quinn's. Unfortunately, that property is owned by Quinn's nemesis and now federal prison inmate, Johnny Stagg.
Quinn's sister, Caddie, seems to have straightened out her life and is now running a church/homeless shelter/food pantry called The River. And his mama is still the rock of the family and still in love with Elvis.
Evil still lurks in Tibbehah County. (Tibbehah is fictional but seems to be an amalgamation of Tippah and Octibbehah, both of which are quite real.) Even though Johnny Stagg is gone, there's a new owner of the local pole-dancing, lap-dancing, and assorted other activities club; she is a tough, no-nonsense woman named Fannie Hancock, and she immediately butts heads with Lillie Virgil.
But there is a greater evil abroad in this county. We don't see its black heart revealed until late in the book, although I admit I began to suspect the truth fairly early in the game. The impetus for getting to the bottom of this terrible corruption is another horrific event - the murder of a young woman.
Millie had once been the top cheerleader at the local high school, but she had dropped out and seemed on a fast track to nowhere. She came from truly awful family circumstances and the great tragedy of her life was the apparent suicide of her brother, Brandon. Then one night a trucker finds her walking down the highway engulfed in flames. He stops to help her and she's taken to the burn unit in Memphis but she does not survive her ordeal.
It looks like a torture/revenge killing. Lillie asks Quinn to come back and work for the sheriff's department in investigating the crime. He had been planning to return to Afghanistan but accepts her request, and we watch these two as they run down every lead in attempting to find a killer. In the end, they get help from an unexpected quarter in solving the mystery, but the truth is not something the people of Tibbehah County want to hear and soon the community is in turmoil.
Well, there's another election for sheriff coming soon and the candidates are lining up - one who (figuratively) wants to build a wall around Tibbehah County and one who wants to ban Muslim immigrants from the county and enforce the law according to the Ten Commandments. And then there's Quinn Colson, who Lillie has persuaded to stay and run for his old office. Wonder who'll win?
My rating: 4 of 5 stars