Ace Atkins just gets better and better, a line and a page at a time. If he has attracted some new and deserved attention by taking over the reigns of the Spenser series from Robert B. Parker, that’s a good thing. But to really appreciate the depth and talent of Atkins’s literary abilities, one must go to his Quinn Colson series, the third installment of which is newly published.
THE BROKEN PLACES is a conundrum in the best of ways: it is one of those books that you cannot read fast enough, yet you never want it to end. Colson, an Afghan war veteran, is a year into his tenure as the sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Don’t look for Tibbehah County or the town of Jericho on any map, other than the one helpfully reproduced on the inside front and back covers of the book. In Atkins’s hands, however, it becomes for the reader --- not to mention its inhabitants, who seem as real as one can find on a page of print --- a very real and dangerous place. Colson’s tenure as sheriff hasn’t been easy, and it’s about to get much worse for more than one reason.
"There are enough characters and intriguing situations here to fill three books, but the primary reason to read it is Atkins’s prose.... No matter what literary genre you might favor, THE BROKEN PLACES is a book you should read and will not forget."
Three convicts (as we are told early on, the politically correct term is “offenders”) are engineering a daring prison escape from the legendary Parchman Farm. The dialogue, which takes place among these men, as they execute their escape and revisit crimes both unmarked and answered for, is worth the price of the book alone. Their plan is to make their way to Jericho, where they believe a fortune awaits them from an armored car heist gone wrong that they had to leave behind. Meanwhile, a convicted murderer named Jamey Dixon, inexplicably pardoned by the outgoing Mississippi governor, has returned to Tibbehah County, seeming reformed and healed in the blood of the Lamb. Colson isn’t convinced of Dixon’s change of heart for two reasons: Dixon’s crime was especially heinous, and Dixon has taken up with Colson’s sister, whose judgment seems to take two steps back with every stutter-step forward.
The convicts believe that Dixon has their money, which he denies as he points them in the direction of a politically connected criminal who seemingly runs North Mississippi from the back room of a truck stop cum striptease establishment. Colson is caught in the middle, trying to protect his sister and the good people of Jericho (and yes, there are a few) as a series of violent thunderstorms approach Tibbehah County from one direction, and the convicts bring a unique storm of their own from another. Both will strike Jericho at approximately the same time, and afterward nothing --- and no one --- will be the same.
There are enough characters and intriguing situations here to fill three books, but the primary reason to read it is Atkins’s prose. I will throw down against anyone who disagrees with the statement that Atkins is one of our best American authors. Period. There is a short paragraph in chapter 13 that tells the reader more about Colson’s personality than many writers could say in an entire novel. I won’t quote the paragraph --- you need to buy the book and read it for yourself --- but it has to do with a cardigan sweater. Actually, it’s more than great writing, it’s genius.
No matter what literary genre you might favor, THE BROKEN PLACES is a book you should read and will not forget.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on May 31, 2013