Review: ‘Last Fair Deal Gone Down’ by Ace Atkins and Marco Finnegan

LastFairDealGoneDownLast Fair Deal Gone Down by Ace Atkins and Marco Finnegan
12-Gauge Comics (May 2016)

Nick Travers’ musician friend Fats is dead, and his saxophone—a vintage 1940s beauty—is missing. Determined to honor the memory of his late friend the only way he knows how, Travers sets out through the rain-soaked streets of New Orleans to recover the sax.

The plot of Last Fair Deal Gone Down, adapted from the short story of the same name by Ace Atkins, doesn’t get much more complicated than that, leaving Atkins and artist Marco Finnegan plenty of room to revel in the seedy Crescent City atmosphere.  Continue reading

Review: ‘Slow Burn’ by Ace Atkins

SlowBurnCoverSlow Burn by Ace Atkins
G. P. Putnam’s Sons (May 3, 2016)

Boston is burning, one abandoned building at a time.

It is a year after the fire that consumed the empty shell that was once the Holy Innocents church – a fire that resulted in the deaths of three Boston firefighters. Those deaths still haunt Jack McGee, a fellow firefighter who has grown increasingly frustrated with his own department’s investigation into the incident. So frustrated, in fact, that he does the near-unthinkable and reaches outside the firefighter family for help. The man he calls on is a P.I. named Spenser. Continue reading

Review: ‘The Redeemers’ by Ace Atkins

The Redeemers by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (July 21, 2015)

RedeemersCoverNow that we’re five books in, the world of Ace Atkins’ “Quinn Colson” series is well-stocked with characters, events, and history. Colson is still the man around whom the stories revolve, the moral center of his family and, whether he believes it or not, all of Tibbehah County; but Atkins has been careful to build up a strong supporting cast along with him. That work pays off handsomely in The Redeemers, in which Colson takes a bit of a back seat while several characters old and new get a chance to shine.

The book opens with Mickey Walls and Kyle Hazlewood, a couple of buddies shooting the breeze at the Huddle House. Mickey guides the discussion to the subject of Larry Cobb, local lumber baron and Mickey’s ex-father-in-law. Larry hasn’t been too nice to Mickey in the wake of his divorce from Tonya, Larry’s daughter, and Mickey has heard that Larry might have screwed Kyle out of some money a while back. They talk about the safe Larry keeps in his house, the one stuffed with money that Larry is afraid to put in a bank. They talk about how ol’ Larry has screwed over a lot of people in Tibbehah County, and wouldn’t it be some fine justice if somebody was to hit the old man where it hurt?

If the guys had stuck to simply venting their frustrations to each other, things would have been better for both of them. Instead, they put together a plan to carry out their little revenge fantasy. That’s bad decision number one. Bad decision number two falls squarely on Mickey, who enlists the help of a couple of “professionals” from Alabama to help carry out the job.

Peewee Sparks is a sloppy, foul-mouthed sloth who loves two things above all else: telling tales about his sexual conquests, and Alabama Crimson Tide football. Chase Clanton is Peewee’s nephew, a dim-witted young man with aspirations to be a hardened criminal, and a love of Alabama Crimson Tide football that rivals that of his uncle. These two spend the book drinking cheap beer, riding around in a van with a mural of Alabama football coaches Bear Bryant and Nick Saban, former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and the Lord Jesus painted on the side, and generally bungling every part of Mickey’s scheme they get their hands on.

These two characters are the worst possible representations of Southern men that I can imagine, but don’t dismiss them as over-the-top caricatures. As a life-long Alabama resident, I can tell you that the characterization is, unfortunately, dead on. Not for ALL Southern men, mind you; but they do represent a very small, very disturbing, minority. I’ve met these men, pumped gas alongside these men, stood in line at Wal-Mart with these men, and watched football games with these men. They exist. God help us, they exist.

Anyway, these two buffoons roll into town to help Mickey and Kyle, and things go downhill fast. A house is wrecked, a deputy is shot, and Peewee’s safe-cracking skills prove to be about as legitimate as his sex stories. And, unbeknownst to this foursome of master criminals, there’s information in Larry Cobb’s safe that some very bad men are willing to do very bad things to keep covered up.

Where’s Quinn Colson in all of this? Well, he’s out of a job – Rusty Wise has been elected sheriff, and his first day on the job is the day of the robbery at Larry Cobb’s house. While Quinn considers his future (featuring such options as farming with his long-estranged, recently returned father; reuniting with his still-married ex-wife; or going to Afghanistan for some security work), deputy Lillie Virgil is trying to bring her new boss up to speed while working the Cobb case. Meanwhile, Quinn’s sister has fallen off the wagon and shacked up with some crackheads in Memphis.

Atkins juggles all the plot threads and characters with a deft hand, and the story breezes along on the strength of his comfortable, conversational prose. Atkins also writes books in Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series, and the way he maintains the stylistic differences between the two – the “Spenser” books with their clipped, economical prose, versus the back porch storytelling style of the “Quinn Colson” books – is staggering.

The Redeemers is a big book for the series as a whole. This seemingly small-time heist ultimately results in a major shake-up for some longtime characters and for Tibbehah County as a whole. Atkins clearly isn’t interested in simply maintaining the status quo, and that’s a good sign for the long-term health of this series. The Redeemers – and the “Quinn Colson” series as a whole – gets my highest recommendation.

Review: ‘Kickback’ by Ace Atkins

Kickback by Ace Atkins
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May 19, 2015)

KickbackAce Atkins continues to hit all the right notes as curator of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series in Kickback, the 45th overall Spenser novel and the fourth written by Atkins. In this latest adventure we get to watch as Spenser connects dots that run from a private juvenile detention facility in Boston Harbor, through a couple of buddy-buddy judges in Blackburn, Massachusetts, all the way down to the sunny beaches of Tampa, Florida. Along the way we’re treated to Atkins’ flawless approximation of Parker’s style as he maintains the sharp plotting and witty banter that helped make Spenser so popular in the first place.

Kickback opens with a woman walking through Spenser’s door with a sandwich and a problem – two things guaranteed to get a response from the private investigator. Sheila Yates is looking for help for her son, Dillon, who’s serving time at a local juvenile detention facility because he set up a fake Twitter account as a prank on his vice principal. Like many of Blackburn’s youth, Dillon has run afoul of the town’s famous “zero tolerance” judge, Joe Scali. Scali believes in no free passes and no breaks, sentencing  kids to months-long stretches for the slightest indiscretions. As Spenser begins to nose around the case, he finds that Scali’s intentions may be less about reducing juvenile crime and more about increasing his personal wealth.

I won’t go any further into the plot, because the main appeal of the series is joining Spenser and his cast of supporting characters (Kickback includes appearances by Hawk and, of course, Spenser’s lovely constant companion, Susan) as they go through their paces. Atkins does a great job of exploring the ways P.I. work can go from routine to deadly with little notice. He also knows the perfect time to drop in the little details that enrich the characters and the world they inhabit – the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and, more importantly, what those things say about them as people.

Is it formulaic? Yes. Atkins is not out to upend the world Parker created. Spenser is basically the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning, and that’s the way we like it. It’s comfort food, and when done right, there’s nothing better than comfort food. If you prefer to see Atkins unfettered by rules he didn’t create, check out the next book in his series about Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson (The Redeemers, out on July 21). But until then, join him as he takes a walk in the well-worn shoes of one of our best mystery writers. With every new Spenser novel, he proves that the trust placed in him by Robert Parker’s family to continue his legacy was well-founded.

2014: The Year in Reading

Cover design2014 was another in a long line of good reading years for yours truly. It wasn’t exactly full of surprises; if you compare this year’s list of favorites to that of previous years, you’ll see a lot of duplication: Ace Atkins, Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, and Robert McCammon are among the most common denominators. Atkins, King and Lansdale together dominate this year’s list, contributing two books each. That’s not something that will necessarily change in the coming year: Atkins will be bringing new entries in his Quinn Colson series and his continuation of Robert Parker’s Spenser series; King has a new novel (a follow-up to this year’s Mr. Mercedes) on deck, as well as a new short story collection; and Lansdale has a new Hap and Leonard book on the horizon. Factor in Clive Barker’s Pinhead/Harry D’Amour novel The Scarlet Gospels and I can damn near give you my top ten for 2015 right here and now.

All of these familiar faces may make it seem like I’m in a rut, but that’s far from the truth. I found several new authors in 2014 that I’m going to be watching closely in the future, Nick Cutter chief among them. His debut novel The Troop was narrowly edged out of this year’s top ten; I was lucky enough to get an early copy of his second novel, The Deep (which comes out on January 13) and that one made the cut – I’ll be posting a review early next week that explains why. I was also deeply impressed by Jedidiah Ayres and Mark Morris and several others that I’ll be reading from here on out.

ForsakenCoverOne thing I’ve always struggled with is ranking these year-end lists in any kind of order. Traditionally I’ve gone numbers one through ten, but this year I abandoned that concept. It’s just too hard to pick one favorite out of this group. So, this year’s list is ordered alphabetically by author, and as I look back on it now I see ten books that I’ll happily revisit in the future.

Here are the books that sunk their hooks deep in my brain in 2014. I hope you’ll take a moment to share your own favorites in the comments – I’m always looking for suggestions for something good to read!

Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
The Deep by Nick Cutter
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
Revival by Stephen King
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris

And here, if you’re interested, is the complete list of what I read this year:

pwoodUndisputed by Chris Jericho
And the Night Growled Back by Aaron Dries
Pulp Fiction: The Complete Story of Quentin Tarantino’s Masterpiece by Jason Bailey
Sixty-Five Stirrup Iron Road by Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Edward Lee, J.F. Gonzalez, Wrath James White, Nate Southard, Shane McKenzie, Ryan Harding and Bryan Smith
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
The Way of All Flesh by Tim Waggoner
Horror Library Volume 5 edited by R.J. Cavender and Boyd E. Harris
Peckerwood by Jedidiah Ayres
Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz
Alien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon
The Troop by Nick Cutter
Wonderland by Ace Atkins
City of Devils by Justin Robinson
The End is Nigh edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Joe Ledger: Special Ops by Jonathan Maberry
Rose of Sharon and Other Stories by Gary A. Braunbeck
The First One You Expect by Adam Cesare
Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates
BorderlineThe King of the Weeds by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins
The Quick
by Lauren Owen
A Place for Sinners by Aaron Dries
Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins
Borderline by Lawrence Block
Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King
The River of Souls by Robert McCammon
The Ninth Configuration by William Peter Blatty
Deep Like the River by Tim Waggoner
Piercing the Darkness edited by Craig Cook
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale
Carrie by Stephen King
Down by Nate Southard
Brainquake by Samuel Fuller
Scream Along With Me edited by Alfred Hitchcock
The Forsaken by Ace Atkins
Black Hat Jack by Joe R. Lansdale
TheHalloweenChildren-HC-mediumDisease by M.F. Wahl
The Halloween Children by Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss
Fangoria: Cover to Cover edited by Anthony Timpone
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Jackpot by David Bernstein, Kristopher Rufty, Shane McKenzie and Adam Cesare
Obsidian Heart Book I: The Wolves of London by Mark Morris
Prisoner 489 by Joe R. Lansdale
Revival by Stephen King
Dark Screams Volume One edited by Brian James Freeman and Richard Chizmar
Exponential by Adam Cesare
The Deep by Nick Cutter

Review: ‘The Broken Places’ by Ace Atkins

BrokenPlacesAce 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.

Ace Atkins hits the road behind new Spenser, Quinn Colson novels

Ace Atkins has a busy month ahead of him.

On May 1, the crime novelist (The RangerInfamousCrossroad Blues and a fistful of others) begins an eight-stop jaunt in support of Lullaby, his first effort as the new scribe behind Robert B. Parker’s popular series of Spenser novels. Atkins was hand-picked by Putnam and the late Parker’s estate to continue the series, and this first book is getting good early reviews. Of course, the real reaction everyone is waiting for is what happens when the die-hard Spenser fans get hold of the book. If Atkins can please them and manage to construct a fresh take that doesn’t feel like a stale retread – a fine line, to be sure – then it will be a job well done. Having read a good bit of Atkins’ work, I think the series is in good hands, and I hope this opens up a whole new fanbase for him.

A few weeks later – beginning on May 31, to be exact – Atkins will be on tour again, this time supporting The Lost Ones, the second book in his own Quinn Colson series. Atkins introduced Colson, a former Army Ranger who returns home to Mississippi to find a county overrun with corruption and violence, in last year’s well-received book The RangerThe Lost Ones finds Colson, who is now the sheriff of troubled Tibbehah County, trying to bust up a bootleg baby racket that’s taken root in his own backyard. The Ranger was a fun read, and there’s a lot of potential for some good Southern noir in the series and the setting. Atkins lives in Mississippi and is a former crime reporter, so he knows of what he writes, and I’m anticipating great things from the Colson books to come.

Below is the full list of tour dates, ripped straight from the author’s website. If he’s coming to your area, make the time to stop by and try one of his books. He’s a personable guy, takes the time to really have a conversation with his fans at these signings, and he’s a helluva writer.

Lullaby Tour, Summer 2012
Tuesday, May 1: New York, New York | Mysterious Bookshop
Wednesday, May 2: New York, New York
Thursday, May 3, 4:30 p.m.: Boston, Massachusetts | Project Jumpstart
Friday, May 4, 7:00 p.m.: Boston, Massachusetts | Porter Square Books
Saturday, May 5, 2:00 pm: Minneapolis, Minnesota | Once Upon A Crime
Sunday: May 6, 12:30 p.m.: Milwaukee, Wisconsin | Mystery One
Monday: May 7, 7:30 p.m.: Denver, Colorado | Tattered Cover
Tuesday, May 8, 7:00 p.m.: Scottsdale, Arizona | Poisoned Pen

The Lost Ones Tour, Summer 2012
Thursday, May 31: Oxford, Mississippi | Square Books
Friday, June 1: Birmingham, Alabama | Books-A-Million
Saturday, June 2: Houston, Texas | Murder By The Book
Sunday, June 3: New Orleans, Louisiana | Faulkner House
Tuesday, June 5: Memphis, Tennessee | The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Wednesday, June 6: Austin, Texas | BookPeople
Thursday, June 7: St. Louis, Missouri | Library Event
Friday, June 8: Nashville, Tennessee | Parnassus Books
Saturday, June 9: Montgomery, Alabama | Capitol Book & News
Wednesday, June 13: Jackson, Mississippi | Lemuria
Thursday, June 14: Tampa, Florida | Inkwood
Thursday, June 14: St. Petersburg, Florida | Haslam’s

So, what are your thoughts on characters like Spenser continuing on without the original author? Good idea, if in the right hands? Greedy cash grab? Blasphemy? Personally, I like the idea of having other authors interpret established characters – imagine Neil Gaiman writing a “Dark Tower” novel, or Michael Crichton’s take on James Bond. You still have the originals if that’s all you want, but you can also get different perspectives on your tried-and-true favorites.

What do you think?