I moved Ace Atkins onto my must-read list of authors after finishing WHITE SHADOW, a crime novel based on an unsolved Tampa, Florida murder that occurred in the 1950s. He has remained firmly ensconced upon it ever since, through three subsequent historical crime novels, each better than the last. His new one, THE RANGER, is a contemporary work that carries with it the implication of being the first of a series. I hope that it is; it's a book that explodes, crackles and hums right along from page to page.
It's pitch- and letter-perfect every step of the way, told in a voice that will put you in the mind of James Lee Burke (yes, it's that good) while retaining its own originality.
Quinn Colson is the Ranger of the title, an Army Ranger who has been fighting the good fight in Afghanistan for several years. When he returns home to the hill country of Northeast Mississippi on bereavement leave, he is a bit stunned to find that corruption has taken hold. He's home to attend the funeral of his Uncle Hamp, the local sheriff, who died of a gunshot wound that was supposedly self-inflicted.
Colson slowly acquires doubts, and before long --- accompanied by the few remaining friends he has --- he begins to investigate his uncle's final weeks and days, attempting to determine who would have the most to gain from his uncle's death. At the top of the list is a shady local entrepreneur and real estate developer, who claims that Colson's uncle had defaulted on a loan secured by a homestead owned by Colson's family for generations. The manufacture and sale of crystal meth has also taken hold in the area, and there is the possibility that Hamp's efforts to root out the evil had made him an inconvenience to the local drug kingpin: a white supremacist for whom an anticipated race war is a side project.
Colson's life is further complicated by the presence of the ex-flame who threw him over while he was in the service and who is now married to the town doctor; she is making a none-too-subtle effort to throw herself back at Colson. But the real danger to Colson is coming from several different and unexpected directions. His Ranger training holds him in good stead, but it may not be enough. His safest course of action may be to return to the base and forget his hometown; as will be seen, however, Colson never takes the easy way out. And as THE RANGER heads toward its violent and explosive climax, it is doubtful that anyone will emerge unscathed.
I picked up THE RANGER during one of the saddest weeks of my life; while it didn't make everything all better, it certainly moved me temporarily to another, better place, which is all that I could ask for. It's pitch- and letter-perfect every step of the way, told in a voice that will put you in the mind of James Lee Burke (yes, it's that good) while retaining its own originality.
Go ahead and read the first paragraph or two, and if you can find it within yourself to stop before you hit the end, then you have more willpower than I do. And the final 70 pages or so will crawl into the crevices of your memory and lodge there like a wood tick in your ear canal. As for the characters, I felt as if I was on nodding acquaintance with at least half of the people who populate the book. If you don't think they are true to life, you have never stopped for gas in Hattiesburg off of Interstate 59. But don't take my word for it. Get your own copy and start reading. By the time you're done with THE RANGER, you will have read Atkins's best work to date. Don't miss it!
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 13, 2011