Judith Sullivan is a writer in Leeds, originally from Baltimore. She is working on a crime series set in Paris. Fluent in French, she’s pretty good with English and has conversational Italian and German. She is working to develop her Yorkshire speak.
One reviewer of an earlier Quinn Coulson novel referred to Atkins’ style as redneck noir. The two notions seem to conflict – as in goofy, laid-back inarticulate versus serious, intense, witty. But in some ways it applies. The noir part comes from tough men and some broads who are tough while others seem to need saving. The setting is of The Lost Ones really red-necky peppered with enormous Wal-Marts and smoky beer joints and people fiddling with their banged out motors.
This may sound like a set-up for a Springsteen song, but the soundtrack here is strictly southern – Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, with Elvis’ ghost also looming large over the proceedings. The plot is timeless and very much part of the Southern Gothic. Former Ranger Quinn Coulson is readapting to life in mythical Tibbehah County, Mississippi where he has taken on the role of Sherriff, a job that has him policing the people he grew up with – the usual array of ex-girlfriends, old buddies gone bad, dubious hail-fellow-well-met types, etc.
In addition to his sherriffing duties, Coulson is a surrogate father for his nephew, Jason, whose mother Caddy comes and goes. Quinn’s sister is one of the best drawn female characters – also one of the title’s lost ones who veers between addiction to drugs and an addiction to religious fervor.
There is very much a sense of transience about this place, despite Coulson returning from his military duties to a familiar landscape. People meander in and out of story and seem to meander in and out of their own lives, aimless and uprooted with no professional or familial goals.
The mystery within The Lost Ones concerns married Janet and Ramon Torres who go on the run with a dozen small Mexican children, leaving one baby at home near death. Coulson and his fellow law enforcement officers uncover an especially nasty trafficking ring starting with their inspection of the especially nasty home which served as the Torreses’ nursery cum holding cells. It may seem bizarre that in 2012 one ramshackle dirty home would house so many children with nobody in officialdom blinking or calling the police. So well-written is The Lost Ones, one believes Atkins’ rendition of the story that until the kids vanished, none of the neighbours seemed that upset or troubled by the situation. This is the way these people live in an almost permanent state of acceptance that life is odd, life is unfair, but hey – that is how it is.
There is no real mystery to the tracking down of the Torreses. It is more of a Southern-fried Tom and Jerry cartoon with Coulson and others heading as far south as Mexico to track down the kidnappers. Other things happen, too, most of them involving the unravelling of a historical mystery locked away in the memories of Quinn and Caddy. It’s all very leisurely but in a good way that fits with the sleepy small town setting. The love story is a stand-out, the relationship between Coulson and federal agent Dinah Brand tender and funny and grown-up and believable.
Like the references direct and indirect to The King, the humor is a constant and very much of the place. One character for instance thinks he is near death and takes umbrage at the cigarette on offer. “Here it was his last smoke, and a damn menthol.” Another character commenting on fast news travels in Tibbebah quips that “You can’t fart in this town without someone hearing it.”
But the humour is not over the top in this book which deals with some terrible stuff – child abduction and abuse and drug use and across the board poverty and lack of ambition. The tone is right and never condescending or fey. The dialogue is believable and it allows the characters to jump off the page with their quirks and dry wit and.
The late and oh-so-great Elmore Leonard is referred to twice, quoted on the back cover praising Atkins and at the beginning of the book there is quote from Leonard’s Last Stand at Saber River. The parallels are many and Atkins shares Leonard’s gift for dry but meaningful dialogue that moves the story forward. He also has the bard of Detroit sharp eye for how what people wear and eat and drink defines them.
There is a difference in that Detroit, where Leonard set so many of his books, is a real place and Tibbebah fictional. It feels real, though, and so do Coulson, his precocious nephew and his mother with her framed pictures of Jesus and Elvis.
Shots is looking forward to the next instalment in the adventures of Tibbebah county.