Writing the first book in a planned series can sometimes put the author at a disadvantage. He or she has to strike a balance between building a world inhabited with interesting characters and simply telling a good story. Yes, standalone novels also have that element of world building, but there’s a subtle yet important difference when you’re trying to lay the groundwork not only for the story you’re telling now, but for stories you hope to tell in the future.
With The Ranger, Ace Atkins gives an example of how to strike that balance in just the right way. It’s no surprise this wasn’t a problem for Atkins, who started his professional writing career as a reporter with the Tampa Tribune (where he earned a Pulitzer Prize nomination). Good reporting is all about getting new information across in a succinct and engaging manner, and Atkins displays his strengths in this area throughout The Ranger. Also, he’s already an accomplished novelist with one character-driven series behind him (the Nick Travers series: Crossroad Blues, Leavin’ Trunk Blues, Dark End of the Street and Dirty South), and after a series of historical crime one-offs he’s back to where he began.
It’s not Nick Travers this time around, however. It’s Quinn Colson, an Army Ranger fresh off his latest tour of the Middle East, come back home for the funeral of his uncle, the Tibbehah County sheriff who committed suicide. Well, that’s the official story, but Quinn has his doubts. With a little time to kill before returning to duty, Quinn decides to snoop around the dark corners of his home town. Needless to say, he doesn’t like everything he finds.
This premise is an excellent way to kick off the series, as it gives Atkins an organic excuse to send Quinn on a tour of the county and many of its characters, reintegrating him back into his old stomping grounds while introducing us out-of-towners to the lay of the land. Atkins has stated in interviews that Tibbehah County is a combination of several authentic locales, and he does a good job of depicting the economically-depressed South without resorting to stereotypes. As a life-long resident of Alabama, I can vouch for the authenticity. Yes, there are trailers and dogs and pickup trucks and guns, but the people that own these things are not cartoon characters. They’re real people, just like many of the people I share checkout lines in Walmart with every weekend. It’s a fine and difficult line to ride, but Atkins does so expertly.
Atkins gives Quinn an interesting supporting cast, most prominently a tomboy deputy sheriff and a one-armed Army buddy. They cross paths with a hapless and possibly crooked land developer, a greedy evangelist, and members of a Memphis crime cartel that I just bet will factor into future Quinn Colson books.
The Ranger is a solid first entry in the series, an engaging setup and introduction for a character that I look forward to getting to know better. The story draws you in and doesn’t let go, especially in the final third when the various plotlines begin to converge. It’s an outstanding summer read, and highly recommended.