Ace Atkins’ latest Quinn Colson novel, The Innocents, burns with anger even as it delivers the fun dialogue and bad ass action you expect. At first, I thought the title was ironic, since just about every character is guilty of something. Atkins has focused on an issue of Southern culture, race, religion, politics, in each book. Here he covers everything and has a bone to pick with all topics included, even football.
The book picks up roughly a year after Quinn being kicked out as sheriff in The Redeemers. He returns home from training Afghani security forces policing techniques. He takes a new job as deputy under the new sheriff, his friend, Lillie Virgil.
Soon they get a strange and horrible case. Milly Jones, a former cheerleader, is found walking along the highway on fire before she dies. The suspects range from her boorish father who disowned her, her drug dealer boyfriend, and her boss, a woman who has taken over the strip club operated by Quinn’s nemesis Johnny Stagg during his stay in prison. (Stagg is not out of the picture though.)
The investigation takes Quinn and Lillie through Tibbehah County, confronted by the worst in small town class-ism, indifference, and hypocrisy. Even the charitable act of the townspeople bringing food to the police station has an undercurrent of Southern lynching culture. As the new sheriff, Lillie moves more to the forefront of the novel, confronting her constituency with her forthright manner. They may catch the killer, but Atkins makes it clear that the society that spawned and supported the criminal is alive and well.
Much like last year’s The Cartel, The Innocents enrages as it entertains. It reflects Atkins’ Faulkner influence as he examines the sins of the South. When I finished it, I realized the title wasn’t ironic. The book was for those like Milly, shunned and ignored by those around her. Much like Quinn and Lillie, this novel gives a voice to those like her.