When a novel opens with a pregnant young woman named Lena walking along a Mississippi road looking for the runaway daddy of her baby, you know you're in Faulkner country.
William Faulkner's Light in August, published in 1932, opens just that way — and so does Ace Atkins' 2011 novel The Ranger.
It's an audacious claim to stake, but Atkins carves his own dark niche in the Mississippi hill country, one that feels like it's just down the road (if eight or more decades removed) from Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.
The Ranger is Atkins' 10th crime novel, and Faulkner, of course, wrote crime fiction too — the Gavin Stephens stories, Sanctuary, Light in August. And during his brief career in Hollywood he crossed paths with another of Atkins' major inspirations when he wrote the screenplay for Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep.
Atkins is a former newspaper reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Tribune who now lives in Oxford, Miss., not far from Rowan Oak, Faulkner's longtime home there.
Atkins first made his fictional mark with a series of four novels, set in New Orleans, about musicologist and amateur detective Nick Travers. Then he published four books of historical crime fiction, including the terrific White Shadow, about the 1955 murder of Tampa socialite-gangster Charlie Wall.
With The Ranger, Atkins returns to series fiction; the first sequel will be published next summer. The title character is Quinn Colson, a young U.S. Army Ranger who comes back from Afghanistan to his hometown of Jericho after his uncle, the Tibbehah County sheriff, commits suicide.
Or not. How — and why — Hampton Beckett died is just one perilous question Quinn finds himself trying to answer. Jericho is a town overrun by ruthless, casually violent meth dealers and their crews. The men whose families have run the place for generations seem powerless against the criminals — or complicit.
That's not the only problem Quinn faces. He was the one who picked up Lena walking along the road, and the man she was searching for is a punk from one of the meth crews. Quinn should forget about her, but he can't walk away from a woman in peril — like, for example, his wild, lost sister Caddy.
All of those echoes of Faulkner (the Colson siblings' father is named Jason, other characters are named Varner and Gowrie, a barn burns) are seamlessly woven into the story and enrich its resonance, but you don't have to have read a sentence of Faulkner to enjoy The Ranger.
In Colson, Atkins has created a compelling character, a coolly intelligent man who brings both the rare abilities of Special Ops training and a wider experience of the world to his festering little hometown. The plot feels mean and speedy, like it's powered by some of that meth, and the language echoes with the influences of Faulkner and Chandler but finds its own strong voice.
Atkins will be taking on the voice of another of his major influences in his next book. Last December, he was selected to continue the Spenser series written by Robert B. Parker, who died in January 2010. He was chosen unanimously by Parker's family and publisher, Putnam, which also publishes Atkins' books.
Atkins finished writing what will be the 40th Spenser book in May, and it will be published next spring. From the Mississippi hills to Beacon Hill in Boston is a jump, but Atkins is poised to make it.