Author: Ace Atkins
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Price: $27.00 (Hardcover)
“The Shameless” is the ninth in Atkins’ Quinn Colson series, and it may be the best. Here is your action novel for the beach, filled with distressingly realistic dialogue and wonderful characters, from Fannie Hathcock, brothel madam, to middle-school boys playing JV football.
As we are reminded, Sheriff Colson grew up in Tibbehah County, north Mississippi, a very active kid. He loved the big woods, hunting and fishing, was not a great student and got into some very typical teenage scrapes, trespassing, driving violations and so on, which his uncle, Sheriff Hamp Beckett, smoothed over for him. Colson went into the U.S. Army, became a Ranger, served with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq and resigned after the death of his uncle.
As sheriff he’s made some progress at cleaning up drug dealers, human traffickers, and lots more.
These adventures are chronicled in the first eight “Ranger” books and it does not hurt to say that each book stands perfectly well alone and there is unfinished business at the end of each, taken up in the next. The past is, as we know well, not past.
“The Shameless” follows this pattern.
Now married, he’s living happily with Maggie and her son, Brandon, named after a childhood sweetheart, Brandon Taylor, who was discovered dead in the woods, 20 years before, presumably a suicide.
It is the reopening of this cold case that sets the plot in motion. The dead boy’s sister, Shaina, sends an email to a pair of podcast producers from Brooklyn, Tashi Coleman and Jessica Torres, asking them to investigate Brandon’s death. These two Yankees, one with blue hair, win the fish-out-of-water contest going away, but in spite of their blinding ignorance of Mississippi ways, as they move around the county, jamming their microphone into various startled and unwilling faces, Atkins uses them to move the novel along beautifully.
Their innocence in fact works as a kind of sociology lesson in Mississippi culture as they interview drunks, felons, politicians, the born again, police, hookers, the whole range of Mississippi society. On the highway they see billboards such as one with a picture of Kermit the Frog: “Eats flies. Dates a pig. Hollywood star.”
The Brooklynites come to realize, “I mean, Jesus. This is one f---ed up county. Everyone is one degree of separation. Like a god--mn Greek tragedy.”
Faulkner knew that.
When the producers find Hubie Phillips, Brandon’s high school teacher and mentor in Memphis, he says: “I hate to break it to you…People called me witty and eccentric to my face and just a crazy old queer behind my back.”
When Brandon died, Phillips was accused of molesting and killing him, threatened with death and, after 20 years as a teacher, had to flee with the clothes on his back, putting “paid” to the popular myth that gay men in Southern culture are treasured by all for their good taste. Atkins uses Phillips to comment on Tibbehah County and Mississippi in general: “That whole county tries to act like it’s all Mayberry. Main Street USA. But there is a streak of mean that’s been there since the town was settled.
Did you know they lynched a black man in 1977 and no one said a damn thing? It’s not a civilized place. And I doubt anything has changed.”
Among the things the podcasters don’t know—there is a turf war shaping up between criminal syndicates.
The casinos in Tunica are failing; there is less loot to go around, and the thoroughly corrupt and vile state Senator Jimmy Vardaman has launched a campaign for governor as a super Christian candidate using for “bodyguards” a new militia group, The Watchmen Society, all wearing guns, caps, and black T-shirts with a rebel flag.
Southerners, he claims, are losing their history to political correctness and being “pushed out of their homes” by “immigrants and gangbangers.” Vardaman promises to clean up the muck in Jackson, take Mississippi back to its former days of glory and assures his fans “this is a race about conviction and moral fiber” and they are to ignore “fake news.”
Vardaman and other miscreants begin a smear campaign against Colson, to get him out of the way. Using the podcast girls, they try to implicate him in the death of Brandon Taylor.
This outright lying is defended as “... just a set of alternate facts, son.”
There is a kind of uncivil war among the criminals as they double cross and exterminate one another. Some of the old-style gangsters try to explain to Colson that they are “honest crooks.” “You know where we stand. It’s the god--mn suit and tie crowd, thumping the Bible and looking to turn everything back into the plantation, who’re going to take your ass out one day.”
As the action moves to its bloody conclusion, more bodies are unearthed; more dead bodies are created and the violence reaches a very satisfying crescendo.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.