Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: The Heathens

The Heathens The Heathens by Ace Atkins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a free advance copy of this from NetGalley for review.

In these troubled and complicated times, it’s nice to be able to read a book set in a small town in Mississippi where the people still have old time family values and the problems of the modern world never intrude on them.

And if you actually believe that I can tell you don’t really know anything about American small towns at all.

As usual, there’s trouble in Tibbehah County, and Sheriff Quinn Colson has to deal with it. The most pressing problem is that a barfly named Gina Byrd has vanished, and when evidence of foul play turns up, her troubled teenage daughter TJ is the prime suspect. TJ is the kind of tough-as-nails poor kid who has no use or respect for the law so despite her claims that she’s innocent, TJ goes on the run with her boyfriend, her best friend, and her younger brother. When they encounter a rich girl with her own problems and a very active Instagram account, TJ’s crime spree goes viral while she continues to claim that her mother’s boyfriend is the real guilty party.

Quinn has another complication because his former deputy turned US Marshal, Lilly Virgil, was a friend to the missing woman who automatically believes the worst about TJ and goes on a personally motivated hunt for the girl and her half-assed gang despite Quinn’s belief that their might be some truth to TJ’s story. Meanwhile, an old enemy of Quinn’s has returned and is quietly rebuilding a crime empire as he tries to use the media firestorm around TJ to his own advantage. Adding to the mess are the utterly disgusting and psychotic father & son house painters who also moonlight as thugs for hire. 

Ace Atkins had spent several books bringing several plots to a head which culminated nicely in the last book so this seems like a turning point in the series. There’s still a lot of the same characters, and previous events still have on-going consequences, but this feels like a new phase in the adventures of Quinn Colson is beginning. It’s a helluva good start, too.

Atkins continues to nail the whole vibe of a small town from its low key charms and the complex relationships among people who know each other all too well. He also shows clear vision when exploring the flaws like stomach turning hypocrisy or stubborn nostalgia for times that weren’t really all that great.

There’s another potentially interesting factor in play here because Atkins sometimes likes to slyly play off other fiction. For example, in one of his Spenser books he recreated a scene from True Grit, and he also used a darker version of The Dukes of Hazard as a kind of template for a Quinn Colson novel. Here, I get the distinct impression that the inspiration may have been an ‘80s movie called The Legend of Billie Jean although it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen that one so take this observation with a grain of salt.

Overall, it’s Atkins doing his usual thing of telling a rural crime story with social commentary mixed in, and there's damn few writers who can do it as well as he does. 

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Friday, June 25, 2021

Review: Out on the Cutting Edge

Out on the Cutting Edge Out on the Cutting Edge by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And so begins the second phase of Matt Scudder.

Block had written about Matt trying to get sober in the mid-‘80s with 8 Million Ways to Die, and then he had done a flashback novel when Matt was still boozing during the ‘70s in When the Sacred Ginmill Closes so there’s been a pretty substantial gap in Matt’s timeline when this story starts up in 1989. (Thanks to winning an ARC of the upcoming A Drop of the Hard Stuff, I can report that Scudder fans will get some more info about what Matt was up to.)

Matt is over three years sober and has become a regular fixture at AA meetings. He still works as an unlicensed private detective and has been trying to track down a missing girl. With no leads in that case and without a steady girlfriend or the circle of bar buddies he used to hang with, Matt is a little bored and lonely. A former small time crook named Eddie approaches Matt after an AA meeting and asks if he would hear his fifth step, a confession of the things that he feels badly about it. Matt agrees, but then doesn’t hear from Eddie. When he goes looking for him, Matt finds Eddie dead under odd circumstances. Was it an accident or murder?

Matt meets a couple of new friends in this one. The first is a woman that he starts dating and likes very much, but he’s quietly conflicted about her drinking. The second is a man who will become a very important figure in the Scudder series: Mick Ballou. (Oddly, he’s called Mickey in this first one. I always remember him as being referred to as Mick.)

Ballou is a bigger than life Irish gangster who likes to wear his father’s old butcher apron to an early mass in the meat district of New York, and it’s probably best that you not ask him about any fresh stains you see on it. Mick also may or may not have once carried an enemy’s head around in a bowling bag while he was bar hopping. Oddly, the hard drinking criminal and the alcoholic ex-cop feel a kinship, and this one hints at the long friendship that eventually develops between the two.

Matt’s life without drinking and the introduction of Ballou mark this as a change to the series, but it’s still the same incredibly well-written account of a low-key but complicated detective.

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