By Ace Atkins
Putnam. 370 pp. $26.95
“The Redeemers” is the fifth novel in Ace Atkins’s series about Quinn Colson, a U. S. Army Ranger turned Mississippi crime-fighter. It’s an exciting, fast-moving portrait of a formidable hero doing battle with an all-too-believable onslaught of corruption, violence and rampant ignorance that threatens the little home town he loves.
Earlier in the series, after 10 years serving in Afghanistan, Colson returned home to Jericho and was elected sheriff. As this book opens, he has been defeated for reelection by the machinations of his archenemy, Johnny Stagg, a local politician who owns the town’s gambling house and brothel. Colson also faces personal problems. Not only is his sister a heroin addict but he’s also trying to sort things out with his high school sweetheart, who has left her husband so they can be together.
More problems ensue when two numbskulls decide to rob the home of a businessman who reputedly keeps a million dollars in cash in his safe. Not knowing how to open a safe, they recruit an Alabama safe-cracker, a sex-crazed sleazebag who is assisted by his 19-year-old nephew, who’s just dumb enough to be dangerous.
The misadventures of these four foul-mouthed fools provide high comedy, even after they start killing one another over the money. Then Colson learns that the stolen safe contained proof of illegal deals carried out by the businessman, Stagg and corrupt members of the state legislature. People will kill for these documents. That fact leads to a brilliant climax in which Colson, badly wounded, must summon his military skills to save himself and his sister from hired killers who pursue them through a frozen forest. It’s adventure writing of a high order.
So what’s my beef with a novel so richly packed with colorful characters and expert writing? Let me digress. Just after World War II, when Norman Mailer was at work on “The Naked and the Dead,” he had to invent a three-letter word — “fug” — to use in place of the four-letter word that real soldiers used but that his publisher wouldn’t print. Today, of course, anything goes. That’s the problem: This novel goes bonkers with regard to profanity.
I tried to ignore the barrage, but on Page 227, when Atkins used what I will delicately call the s-word seven times and the f-word three times, I started circling those and related words. By Page 281, I had noted 82 uses of the s-word and 48 of the f-word. I stopped counting there, but at that rate, the entire book would approach a thousand uses of those two words, and that’s not including many other terms, including various terms for female anatomy. (In the spirit of gender equality, let us note that several of the book’s female characters are almost as crude as its men.)
Atkins would probably justify this on the grounds of realism — that his characters are ignorant lowlifes who simply reflect the way countless others across the country speak. And that’s true. Still, although realism is generally a virtue in fiction, it can be overdone. Profanity can be amusing or dramatic or, on rare occasions, poetic, but used this obsessively, it simply becomes a distraction from what’s good about the book.
I wish Atkins had given us less trash talk and more welcome glimpses of the South he knows so well. For example, he has Colson’s mother serving black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day for good luck, a custom I had almost forgotten. He has a good-hearted stripper ask her boss, “Can I get you another drank?” He has one of the nitwits who stole the safe say plaintively of an ex-girlfriend, “I think she’s dating the goddamn meat manager at the Piggly Wiggly. Said I never took her nowhere.” And when Colson plays his radio, he hears not only the predictable voices of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash but less-remembered songs by Ferlin Husky and Mel Tillis. Ferlin and Mel. I knew those boys in Nashville, a long time ago, and it’s good to think back on them.
Patrick Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.