Ace Atkins has settled into a comfortable groove in his Quinn Colson series, but that doesn’t mean he’s letting his characters get comfortable. Things aren’t easy for Colson when The Broken Places (the third book in the series, following 2011’s The Ranger and 2012’s The Lost Ones) begins, and they’re not looking great when the novel slams to a halt some 350 pages later.
Colson is the sheriff of Tibbehah County, a sun-baked patch of Mississippi that’s populated with a fair share of good, hard-working people. It’s also got it’s share of shifty characters, however, and a few of them have direct ties to Colson’s own family. Currently his sister is the biggest concern; Caddy’s come a long way toward getting her life together after a period of drug abuse and exotic dancing, but she’s fallen in love with an ex-con named Jamey Dixon. Dixon has returned home as a born-again preacher after getting pardoned from prison, where he was doing time for the murder of his then-girlfriend, a crime he swears he didn’t commit. But he hasn’t come home alone – in his wake follow a trio of fellow cons, out of prison not by pardon but by jailbreak, and they’re looking for something they think Dixon may be hiding from them.
After a slam-bang opening that depicts the above-mentioned jailbreak, Atkins brings it down to a simmer, letting us spend time with the cast of characters he’s been expertly fleshing out since book one. Colson is a fascinating guy, a man shaped and sharpened by his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s sharp, intelligent and, most importantly, level-headed – quick to act, but only after assessing the situation as thoroughly as time allows. He knows the law and is bound to it, but he refuses to be suffocated by it.
The “convict who found Jesus” is a character almost as old as crime fiction itself, yet Jamey Dixon is far from predictable. As the book goes on, it gets harder and harder to dismiss Dixon as a shyster. This is bolstered by Caddy’s firm and unwavering belief in him. Caddy is desperate to prove that she has some worth, and wants nothing more than to give her young son a good future. As she continues to believe in Dixon, it becomes harder for us to doubt him.
Esau and Bones, two of the cons looking for Dixon, are surprisingly hard to dislike. They are despicable men who do despicable things, but there’s a certain charm to the pair that’s hard to ignore. Their constant back-and-forth reminded me a little of the characters Hap and Leonard from Joe Lansdale’s books, only without that pair’s sense of morality and good intentions. Esau, especially, comes across as more than a man out for money. He’s a broken man who got a taste of salvation but now feels betrayed by his savior, and it’s that sense of betrayal that drives everything he does.
Things come to a head, as things tend to do in books like this, and as the paths of Dixon, Esau, Bones, Caddy and Colson converge, there’s something else bearing down on them: a tornado so powerful, so destructive, it’s set to change the face of the county, and of the series, for years to come.
In the aftermath of this book, there’s a lot of cleaning up to do, and a lot of sorting out ahead for these characters. Atkins wraps things up, sure, but in such a way as to guarantee some tough times ahead for Colson, his family and his county. There is hope, yes, but there are also storm clouds on the horizon once again. That’s maybe a bad thing for Colson and Tibbehah County, but for the rest of us, it’s something to look forward to.