By Ace Atkins
The Ranger is an interesting snapshot of rural Southern life: a life with little hope of escape and crime as the main alternative to a mundane meager existence. The basic plot line involves Quinn Colson, an Army Ranger home on leave after several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He returns to Tibbehah County, Mississippi to attend the funeral of his uncle, Hampton Beckett. This uncle was a father figure to Quinn, his own absentee father chasing a dream as a stunt man in Hollywood. His uncle had been the respected county sheriff for years and his death was ruled a suicide. Quinn immediately suspects foul play and begins his own investigation which involves bending many laws and stepping on a lot of toes.
Quinn quickly recruits an ally, a female deputy sheriff named Lillie Virgil who shares his doubts about the official investigation and its conclusions. Together they gather information that points towards a larger conspiracy regarding Quinn’s uncle’s death. Complicating matters, a local councilman threatens to take the farm Quinn has inherited from his uncle to pay off some nebulous and poorly documented debts, possibly related to a bad gambling habit.
There are other interesting characters in this novel, all of whom demonstrate some despondency related their social plight. There is a pregnant teen who we meet early in the story who is searching for the baby's father. She plays a huge role in the story's conclusion. Quinn’s Mom is raising a mixed race grand-child, left on her doorstep by Quinn’s wild sister Caddy. There is also a high school buddy of Quinn’s, a large black man who also served several tours of duty in the Global War on Terror. This fellow did not escape unscathed, however, and lost an arm in an encounter with a roadside bomb in Fallujah.
There is also Anna Lee Stevens, Quinn’s high school sweetheart who dumped him while he was on duty in Iraq and is now married to the local doctor. There seems to some old fires still burning, at least for Anna Lee, although Quinn seems immune to her interests. There are actually two opportunities for a romantic angle in this novel which are never quite developed (in the sequel, perhaps?). One is with Anna Lee and the other is with Lillie the deputy. Quinn is so focused on solving the mystery of his uncle’s death and ridding his home county of crime and corruption that he seems oblivious to these women.
This rag-tag cast of characters scrapes off the layers of respectability in the county and reveals a large scale methamphetamine production system which encompasses a good number of the local citizenry. The meth labs are managed by a ruthless group of separatists who live in the abandoned fields of the county. The whole scheme is fueled by a Memphis based syndicate which is pulling the strings, managing the corruption and payoffs from up-river.
The setting of North-Eastern Mississippi is very well described by the author, the rural farm roads, creeks and abandoned barns all playing roles in a rapidly evolving story. This sense of loneliness and seperateness adds to the credibility of the entire narrative. Atkins describes one ride Quinn took with the new Sheriff Wesley:
“He found a country music station, and they blared some good outlaw stuff from back in the day, zipping down all those hidden country roads, passing forgotten cemeteries and crumbling gas stations, nothing but gravel and dirt. Quinn switched with Wesley, and Wesley took the car bumping up and over the road into an overgrown field, crashing through a rotting fence and spinning out in the mud and dust, nearly getting stuck in a a ravine, but then redlining her again and mashing that pedal till they were back onto the country road leading to the farm.:”
I enjoyed reading this novel, even though I wouldn’t classify it as a “mystery” in the sense that I would expect from an Edgar nominee. It, like Field Gray is more of a classic thriller. The plot is a bit predictable and formulaic, but the overall novel succeeds because of the strength of the characters and the evocative descriptions of the setting in rural Mississippi. I would recommend The Ranger to readers who enjoy action packed (read “violent”) novels with excellent characters, set in a unique and well-described location.