Monday, August 08, 2011

Recent Reading: Ace and a Joker

Ace Atkins takes a break from his brilliant period crime thrillers like Infamous and Devil’s Garden to work in the here and now. Quinn Colson is the title character of The Ranger, who leaves patrol in Afghanistan for territory almost as treacherous: home in Mississippi. He’s there to lay to rest his uncle Hamp, the sheriff, dead by his own hand. Or so goes the official story. But Quinn’s in no hurry to leave – considered too old to “storm the castle,” he’s about to be pulled from active duty and made an instructor – so he starts digging. Soon he turns up a nest of trouble involving a meth dealer preparing for end times and a local power broker who covets his uncle’s property.

As usual Atkins conveys a tremendous sense of place, here a stretch of Northern Mississippi were the land “had always seemed used up.” In Tibbehah County everyone knows everyone else, which makes the betrayals that are all too common cut deep. That sense of old entanglements wrapping themselves around Quinn anew is present on every page. The book’s pace occasionally flags – when I hear “trailer fire” in a rural crime novel I don’t need a thorough investigation to know that a pan of eggs is not the cause – but Atkins’s vigorous prose powers through those patches. Atkins will be taking over the late Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. I have reservations about continuing those books, but there’s no doubt that Atkins is an inspired choice; Quinn’s rapport with his one-armed ex-Army buddy Boom owes a lot to Spenser and Hawk. While I’d prefer another Colson novel, I’ll have to give one of Atkins’s Spensers a try.

Wayne Ogden was a different kind of soldier in a different kind of war. He has things pretty sweet at the start of The Adjustment by Scott Phillips. WWII is over. He’s back in Wichita, the nominal head of Publicity and Marketing at Collins Aviation. His real job is making sure company chieftain Everett Collins has a good time, all the time. But Wayne’s feeling chafed at even that much responsibility, hemmed in by his wife Sally and the prospect of fatherhood, and nostalgic for his glory days as a crooked supply sergeant and pimp during his Army hitch. And someone is sending him anonymous threatening letters, intent on settling his hash for one of the countless crimes he committed during the war. It’s enough to drive a good man crazy – or a bad man to plot for a better tomorrow.

A truly reprehensible character, Wayne is conniving, opportunistic, utterly unfeeling. And I loved every minute in his company. Scott Phillips has crafted one of the finest contemporary versions of a classic pulp novel that’s also a savage send-up of the American dream. The Adjustment reads like Jim Thompson’s version of Revolutionary Road. Profane, perverse, startling and always funny, it’s one of my favorite books of the year.