At first glance, Ace Atkins’s Quinn Colson books look like a series, but as I’ve read into them, the books have become more of a continuing saga. Quinn Colson, the hero of the books and the (sometimes) sheriff of Tibbehah County in Mississippi, has a deeper, richer history than most series’ protagonists. The South, especially as Atkins paints it—and as I’ve seen it myself, is a tangled mess of familial loyalties, generational guilt, and honor that tends to be built more often than not on shifting sands.
One of the main goals Colson has is to become a pillar of law enforcement and justice in that county. His uncle, the former sheriff, was known to take bribes and look the other way for friends. Many of those people are shocked and dismayed, and turn lethal, when they discover Quinn isn’t cut of the same cloth. His job becomes more difficult because a lot of folks won’t help him out of spite, and some of them even want to kill him.
Not every question in the three earlier novels was answered, and that’s because Atkins keeps turning them over in later books like this one. One of the foundations of every good ol’ Southern boy is the relationship he had with his father. Those relationships are either good or bad. Quinn Colson’s relationship with his estranged father is distant at best. Jason Colson was a stuntman out in Hollywood, a daredevil who doubled Burt Reynolds and others in Hal Needham movies.
That relationship gets rolled over in this book and Quinn, and the readers, discover hidden facets that no one ever knew about. I’m not sure if Atkins has a whole master plan he’s working out in the series, or if he’s kind of feeling his way along the various story threads. What I am sure of is that it’s all working.
In addition to being an investigation into a cold case crime, the hanging of a black man in the 1970s after the brutal rapes of two young girls and the murder of one and attempted murder of the other, the story is also about the collision of a biker leader emerging from decades of prison.
Chains LeDoux is a monster of a man, brought to life by flashback sequences involving Jason Coulson. We get a better sense of our hero’s father, as well as his intentions and failings, so when Quinn finally meets up with his father again, there’s a lot of emotional investment on the table.
As it turns out, LeDoux is gunning for Johnny Staggs, Quinn’s archenemy in the books. Lillie Virgil, Quinn’s friend and deputy, is quick to point out it would be better to just let the biker leader kill Staggs when he gets out of prison. But Quinn’s not wired like that.
The book digs more deeply into that long-ago act of violence and the hanging that was believed to be instant rope justice, and Atkins turns things inside out and upside down along the way. Nothing can be taken at face value.
I enjoy Quinn’s relationship with his mother, sister, and nephew a lot, and his growing romance of Ophelia is beginning to feel like safe territory for me to believe in. But I don’t think Atkins means for his hero to ride off into the sunset so easily. A lot of things are in play in this book, and they don’t get completely settled by the end of it. Such as the upcoming sheriff’s election.
I love Atkins’s portrayal of the South. I grew up in small places like Tibbehah and I’ve seen people like the ones he writes about. I’m surprised that Atkins can pull off Robert B. Parker’s Boston and write about Mississippi so intimately because those are two very different languages.
Anyone who enjoyed Justified will appreciate these books and the culture that Atkins writes about. For those of us who grew up there and left for the bigger cities, it’s like a visit down to home. And for those of you who’ve never been, you’re going to see a world unlike anything you’ve seen before.