Thursday, December 14, 2017
Books

Review: 'The Forsaken' is a darkly exciting thrill ride

Quinn Colson, former U.S. Army Ranger and veteran of "thirteen tours of Iraq and Trashcanistan," has returned to his hometown of Jericho, Miss., and become the county sheriff. But as The Forsaken, Ace Atkins' fourth novel about Quinn, begins, the lawman isn't so sure he wants the job anymore.

Atkins, formerly a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) and the Tampa Tribune, is one busy novelist these days. Each year, besides a book in his series about Quinn, he writes a book in the bestselling Spenser series created by Robert B. Parker, who died in 2010.

In the three Spenser books he has written so far, Atkins captures Parker's style, witty banter framing bursts of violence in a big-city setting. In the Colson books, his style is influenced both by classic noir writers such as Raymond Chandler and by the Grand Pappy of Southern writers, William Faulkner.

Not only has Atkins populated his fictional, Faulkneresque Tibbehah County, Miss., with characters named Varner and McCaslin and Vardaman, but "The past is never dead. It's not even past" — one of Faulkner's best-known lines, from Requiem for a Nun, a book whose themes this one echoes — could be the motto for the whole Colson series. It applies especially to The Forsaken, in which Quinn works to solve a rape and murder that happened more than 30 years ago — and runs right into his own family's past.

The book opens with a description of that 1977 crime. A pair of white teenage girls from Jericho were abducted by a black man. One girl was assaulted, the other killed, and officially the crime remains unsolved. The survivor, Diane Tull, is now middle aged and the mother of grown sons, and she has returned to Jericho to take over her family's feed store. She has become friends with Quinn's sister, Caddy, whom readers of the earlier books will know has her own troubled past.

Diane brings the crime to Quinn's attention (it happened several years before he was born) not for her own sake but because Hank Stillwell, the father of the murdered girl, has been begging her to, and she feels pity for him. Once a swaggering biker, he's now a ruined drunk.

Hank is haunted despite the fact that on the night of the crime a man was lynched for it, hanged and then burned, his body never identified and no one questioned or arrested in his death. Yet weeks later Diane saw her attacker alive, so she and Hank both know that the wrong man was fatally punished.

Quinn has his own problems. He and his chief deputy, Lillie Virgil, are under investigation because of the shootout that ended the previous novel, The Broken Places, and Quinn's re-election as sheriff is far from assured. The county is also still struggling to rebuild from the F4 tornado that tore it up in The Broken Places. But Diane's cold case compels him, and soon he is turning over rocks that many people don't want turned.

As in earlier books, one of Quinn's chief adversaries is Johnny Stagg, businessman, county supervisor and crime boss, proprietor of the Rebel Truck Stop and, out back, the Booby Trap bar (which is just what it sounds like) as well as Tibbehah County's leading drug dealer.

Stagg is the kind of guy who presides as the benevolent civic leader over a ceremony marking the town's rebirth after the tornado — then hosts visiting dignitaries at a party at a private hunting lodge, obligingly providing several shifts of prostitutes for the festivities that would "go on all night or until the Viagra ran out." His latest alliance, despite his own bone-deep racism, is with a young black drug lord from Memphis, whom Stagg hopes can help him block a Mexican cartel's move into the county.

Worrying him even more than the Mexicans, though, is the imminent release from prison of a man named Chains LeDoux. Stagg is so worried he has hired a bodyguard, a mysterious man called Ringold, whom Quinn pegs as a Special Forces vet the minute he sees him.

Before LeDoux was sent off to the infamous federal prison at Brushy Mountain 20 years ago, he was the leader of a notorious biker gang, the Born Losers, based in Tibbehah County. Since LeDoux's imprisonment, the gang has pretty much vanished. But back in the day, Hank Stillwell was a member. And another man sometimes rode with them when he was in town, a hometown kid made good as a dashing Hollywood stunt man: Jason Colson, Quinn and Caddy's long-gone father.

In pursuit of the truth, Quinn and Lillie will confront racism, corruption and long-hidden secrets that come uncomfortably close to home.

At one point, Lillie goes toe to toe with one particularly nasty racist involved in the case: " 'You know why people like you don't bother me? ... 'Cause all of y'all are dying off,' Lillie said. 'Less and less of you every day. You lost. Thank Jesus.' "

But they're not gone yet, and as The Forsaken reveals a dark past, they will strike out again.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

 
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