Sunday, 17 March 2013


If you listened to Open Book today (see the previous post) you would have heard Ace Atkins explaining the influence of Elmore Leonard on his new novel, The Ranger, particularly Leonard's western Last Stand At Sabre River, in which a Confederate soldier home from the Civil War has to fight to reclaim his homestead which has been taken by ex-Union men. There's also a respectful TV movie of the book, starring Tom Selleck. Elmore Leonard provides a blurb for Atkins' new novel, and justifiably so, but the influences on this book go far beyond Leonard's work, and come from two directions.

The returning soldier finding the home front different and corrupt enough for him to have lost what is his goes back a long way, and not just in the western (think of film noir, The Blue Dahlia for example). And there are countless films modelled after the original Walking Tall (although in that one Buford Pusser came home not from war but from wrestling), among which Rolling Thunder might be considered crucial.

The home Quinn Colson comes back to Jericho upon the death of his uncle is the hill country of northeast Mississippi. Colson is still in the Army Rangers; in fact he shows up having won a gun a poker game, and bought a truck in Phenix City, Alabama (if you haven't seen Phil Karlson's great noir film, The Phenix City Story, in which ex-servicemen clean up the most corrupt small town in America, you need to, but until you do you'll miss what that signals). Colson doesn't believe his uncle, a sherrif, killed himself, and he finds his uncle's land is being claimed by the local bigwig, Johnny Stagg.

Stagg has his fingers in lots of pies, some legitimate and many less so. This includes meth cooking, which has become the equivalent of train robbing in the new west. Colson encounters, by chance (echoes of Mickey Spillane) a pregnant teen, travelling to Jericho to find the baby's father. Along the way Colson will also have to deal with his ex-girlfriend, now married, and his sister, now run off and leaving a bi-racial baby behind for her mother to tend. This may be the new south, but it is the same violent south that has been written about since before the Civil War, the south of Jesse James and Deliverance, of Southern Comfort, of Daniel Woodrell's country noir and James Carlos Blake's In The Rogue Blood, the modern south of Leonard's Justified or Atkins' own novel of 1950s corruption in Tampa, White Shadow (you can find my review, written two years ago, of that novel here).

Colson finds some allies (this isn't quite High Noon), and stands his ground, and it is resolved finally in a shootout which, again if you heard Ace explain this you will already know, bears more than a little resemblance to the gunfight at the OK Corral (Doc Holiday, of course, was a southerner).

So it is a western, and it's done with some penache. It reminds me in some ways of when George Pelecanos turned to echoing western tropes in his novels; the prose is more straightforward than, say, White Shadow's,
moving more forcefully. It's closer to Leonard, and it also shows signs of the style which may have prompted Robert B Parker's estate to decide on Atkins to continue the Spenser series. Parker's greatest strength was the ability to set small scenes, through dialogue, that drew portraits of characters quickly and efficiently; there were those in bit parts in the Spenser series whom readers felt they knew, or recognised, in the space of only a few paragraphs. Atkins can do this, and he needs to do it more fully with some of the more major characters, because he has clearly set this up to become a series, and there are already conflicts and ambiguities enough for books to come.

The Ranger is a good start. Again, as he said on Open Book, he'd moved closer and closer to the present day in his novels; it seems to me that by appropriating western themes he also leaves himself some room to do other things within that modern setting. I haven't yet read Atkins' version of Spenser, but since Parker himself also went to westerns, both in Spenser novels and directly in his Cole and Hitch novels, this would seem a rich vein to mine.

The Ranger by Ace Atkins
Corsair, £12.99, ISBN 9781472100313

This review will also appear at Crime Time (

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