Southern Discomfort

In a new thriller, former crime reporter Ace Atkins creates memorable villains and an endearing hero

by Liz Garrigan

The Lost Ones
By Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
352 pages
$25.95

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Ace Atkins writes such believable thrillers: Atkins started his career as a crime reporter at The Tampa Tribune, where he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination for investigative work. He became a full-time novelist when he was just thirty and has written eleven novels to date. The latest, The Lost Ones, is a sequel to The Ranger and also features former Army Ranger Quinn Colson. Back from a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former Colson is now the newly elected sheriff of rural Tibbehah County, Mississippi, where he must battle political corruption, child abuse, and dangerous drug cartels.

Quinn comes to the job after the death of his uncle, who’d been sheriff since Quinn was just a kid. In a special election to fill the office, the young war hero faces off against wealthy, crooked Johnny Stagg, who dabbles in politics, retail, and any under-the-table shenanigans that might put money in his pocket. Stagg is a self-made man, “the son of some dirt farmer out by Carthage who had to peddle his soul and rape thousands of acres of land to make that first million.” Of course, the fresh-faced Quinn prevails, which sends Stagg on a mission to make the young sheriff’s life as miserable as possible.

As it turns out, Johnny Stagg is the least of Quinn’s troubles. Quinn’s friend Donnie Varner, who also served in “Trashcanistan,” managed to smuggle home some Army weapons he plans to cash in. Quinn discovers that Donnie is associating with a Mexican beauty wanted by the feds for trafficking guns and possibly drugs. Though Donnie wants to profit from his dismal time in the desert, even he is shocked by the evil he finds as he becomes inadvertently entangled with a murderous bunch. The Lost Ones also includes a dark family secret the sheriff would prefer to forget (though his ne’er-do-well sister won’t let him) and a baby-selling operation in which a Mexican man and his American wife warehouse children in horrific conditions. By the time Quinn finds out about this pair, they’re already on the run, and a three-year-old is dead from physical trauma.

Sorting things out in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, is a tall order, but Quinn—the kind of guy who takes pride in shined boots and the love of a good dog—gets plenty of help from his ball-busting deputy, Lillie; his one-armed Army buddy Boom; and, temporarily, a red-haired fed whose gun holster winds up on Quinn’s bedside table.

Throughout the novel, Atkins, who lives with his family on an historic farm just outside Oxford, Mississippi, manages to capture the co-existing poverty, hopelessness, beauty, and history of his beleaguered state. In particular, his gift for description nails the way despair can be masked by copious doses of booze, cheap sex, dive bars, and county fairs, where toothless parents who are only a five spot away from homelessness still manage to bankroll cotton candy and corndogs for miles. “Donnie Varner drove around the complex with its twenty pumps, mostly diesel, and a big diner that served the best chicken-fried steak in north Mississippi,” Atkins writes. “Around back was a big metal barn called The Booby Trap, where truckers would work out a little loneliness over cold cans of Coors or Bud. Women worked the poles and a back room filled with ragged vinyl chairs facing mirrored walls. Before he shipped off to the Sandbox the first time, Donnie got eight lap dances from a pregnant girl from Eupora named Britney who promised she’d be using his money to fund her college education. She said she wanted to study dolphins. She also said for two hundred bucks, she could go and make Donnie’s willie sneeze, Donnie saying, ‘For two hundred bucks, I can make my own willie sneeze, darlin.’”

In fact, though The Lost Ones is expertly crafted and chock full of memorable writing, it probably isn’t the best fare for the faint of heart or those only marginally interested in thrillers, mostly because the layers of darkness in this novel are so voluminous. Themes—and scenes—of baby trafficking, abject child neglect, animal abuse, and even child rape course through the pages and keep readers thinking about the bad guys for longer than someone merely interested in a beach read would want. But for hard-core fans of the genre and of Atkins, the story is realistic and textured, giving life to characters who are rich and multi-dimensional. And there’s also this truth about the hero novel: the good guys always win.

[This review appeared originally on May 30, 2012.]

Published Friday, 2 August 2013