The Ranger by Ace Atkins weighs in as the fourth novel I’ve read so far of the five that have been nominated by the Mystery Writers of America for Best Novel of 2011 (see the blog of my writing pal, Karen Burgess, for her explanation of how MWA decides which books to nominate: click here . At last we have a home-grown author with a tale of murder, drugs and intrigue taking place in Mississippi.

Quinn Colson, the eponymous Ranger, comes home to Jerecho on leave for a week to attend the funeral of his Uncle Hamp, who has died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Hamp was the sheriff of Tibbehah County who acted as Quinn’s surrogate father. Quinn’s father–a stunt man for the movies who was rarely home and not welcomed when he was–has long ago left Quinn’s mother, who now cares for her baby grandson abandoned by Quinn’s strung-out absent sister. Mom is a huge Elvis fan.

Quinn quickly learns that not everyone thinks Hamp killed himself, that it might be murder. Quinn decides to stay and ferret out the truth of what happened. The remainder of the story gives us plenty of reasons Hamp could’ve been a target. Quinn uncovers a local meth operation with ties to Memphis bad guys, gets double-crossed by some of the good guys, tries to help a pregnant Lena with her search for “Jody,” the guy who knocked her up, shoots some people and gets shot at by others.

There’s a slight (and I do mean slight) romantic interest between Quinn and Lillie Virgil, the deputy sheriff in Jerecho. Lillie tries to convince Quinn that Hamp didn’t commit suicide and they work together trying to prove it. Quinn’s ex-girlfriend, Anna Lee, also makes the story interesting. She dumped Quinn when he went to Iraq and married the town doctor. Now that Quinn’s back, Anna Lee keeps coming around to see him. What I found annoying was that she never tried to make a pass at him so he could reject her. I also thought it weird that Quinn and Lillie were obviously attracted to each other but remain chaste throughout the book. Lillie plants a kiss on Quinn right at the end when he’s leaving to return to Fort Benning. For all the bloody hands-on action Quinn participates in throughout the story, he’s oddly hands-off when it comes to the women. Discouraging.

As I read this novel, I kept thinking: This would make a good action movie (read “guy” movie). As a novel, I found the plot predictable and some of the characters (Gowrie, for example) pretty stock. I initially liked the alternating points of view between Quinn and Lena, but as the novel progressed the points of view increased to include even minor characters. This seemed sloppy and indicative of poor editing. What I found most refreshing in Atkins’ writing is his sense of place: the hill country of northeast Mississippi. He writes with authority and intimate knowledge of the setting. When Quinn and his buddy Boom stalk the bad guys through the woods, my shoes got muddy following them.

On a scale of 1 to 10:

The Ranger: 5

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