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It's tough to tell crime from politics in Ace Atkins' 'The Shameless'

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Published Jul. 12

The title of Ace Atkins' ninth novel about Mississippi Sheriff Quinn Colson is a tipoff that one of the book's main subjects is politics: It's called The Shameless.

Atkins, a former St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune reporter, writes the Colson series as well as continuing the late Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. (His eighth Spenser book, Angel Eyes, will be published in November.) Colson is a native of the fictional town of Jericho in Tibbehah County, Miss., a man with a deep knowledge of his state's problems who refuses to surrender to them.

"He'd been sheriff now for nearly a decade and he still wasn't sure the state was getting any better. It was the entire reason he'd retired early as a U.S. Army Ranger, believing he could make a difference, fighting corruption, drug running, and violence in his own backyard."

As The Shameless opens, he's feeling discouraged. With his new wife, Maggie, Quinn is making an obligatory appearance at the county fair, where the two hear a speech by a slick, silver-haired politician named Jimmy Vardaman, whom Quinn knows all too well.

"Vardaman," Atkins writes, "had kept a big hunt lodge in Tibbehah County for decades, the source of wild rumor and sustained fact, a place where he'd worked out deals with some of the most corrupt sorry-ass people in north Mississippi. Several times Vardaman had been on the fringe of people Quinn had either sent to jail or shot. But Vardaman always slipped clear of it, like a man who stepped in cow s--- and came out smelling like Chanel No. 5."

Now Vardaman is running for governor on a populist platform that stops just half a breath short of outright racism, spouting religious platitudes despite his skeevy past. The crowds love him.

Quinn and Maggie don't, but when they leave partway through his speech they're confronted by a clutch of black-clad thugs who tell Quinn he "ain't got no right trying to make Senator Vardaman uncomfortable."

"Quinn had met a hundred guys like this," Atkins writes, "wannabe Special Forces operators who took online courses and drooled over gun magazines." When one of them threatens Maggie, Quinn steps up. "Didn't even drop your cigar," she says admiringly.

Another of Vardaman's devoted supporters in Jericho is a Bible-thumping county official known to all as Old Man Skinner. His current project is raising money to erect a 60-foot cross next to the highway, where it will obscure a "damn Mississippi landmark," the big neon sign for a strip club called Vienna's Place. It's a classic situation — campaigning politicians raging righteously against the vice they happily indulge in once the votes are counted.

The club's proprietor, the lovely and formidable Fannie Hathcock, has a more pressing problem: a turf battle she's fighting against other Mississippi organized crime bosses, including a Tunica casino mogul and a Choctaw chief.

In the last Colson novel, The Sinners, one casualty of those turf wars was Quinn's best friend and fellow vet, Boom Kimbrough, who is now struggling to recover from a savage beating. Quinn's fierce former deputy, Lillie Virgil, now a U.S. Marshal, has made it her business to arrest a dirtbag named Wes Taggart, one of Boom's attackers. (Quinn shot the other one.) She captures Taggart with the help of his ex-girlfriend, a high school senior turned stripper "whose real name was Tiffany Dement but went by Twilight to avoid professional confusion." Taggart's arrest, however, will trigger further chaos.

Meanwhile, Quinn's sister Caddy, a recovering addict, is running her ministry for refugees and poor and homeless people on half a shoestring and trying to figure out why Bentley Vandeven, a rich kid from Memphis, is romancing her.

Into that mix of the usual homegrown characters Quinn deals with, Atkins tosses a couple of folks from the big city — Brooklyn, to be exact. Tashi Coleman and Jessica Torres are settling into Jericho to do research for their true-crime podcast, Thin Air. They're digging into the disappearance 20 years ago of a local teenager, Brandon Taylor, who vanished while deer hunting. When he was found with a bullet through his head, his death was deemed a suicide, but his family doesn't buy it.

It's not just another cold case for Quinn. Brandon was a few years younger, but Quinn knew him in high school. And Brandon's girlfriend then was Maggie Powers — now Quinn's wife. Her young son, whom Quinn is about to adopt, is named after Brandon.

Tashi and Jessica are also chasing rumors that the former sheriff, Hamp Beckett, who was Quinn's uncle, might have covered up the real nature of Brandon's death.

That's a lot of plot lines, but Atkins keeps them running smooth and hitting on all pistons as the action accelerates. Could Fannie's power struggles and Caddy's "Ole Miss frat boy" suitor and Brandon Taylor's long-ago death and Vardaman's current campaign all be related? You'll be surprised.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

The Shameless: A Quinn Colson Novel

By Ace Atkins

Putnam, 446 pages, $27

Meet the author

Ace Atkins will be a featured author at the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading on Nov. 9 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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