Book Review – FIRE IN THE HOLE AND OTHER STORIES (2004) by Elmore Leonard

FIRE IN THE HOLE AND OTHER STORIES by ELMORE LEONARD (2004, William Morrow, 228pp) ***½

Blurb: Originally published as When the Women Came Out to Dance, Elmore Leonard’s extraordinary story collection, Fire in the Hole reconfirms his standing as the “King Daddy of crime writers” (Seattle Times)–a true Grand Master in the legendary company of John D. MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. These nine riveting tales of crime and (sometimes) punishment–including the title story starring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, which was the basis for the smash hit TV series Justified–feature all the elements that have made the great Elmore Leonard great: superb writing, unforgettable characters, breathtaking twists, and the sharpest, coolest dialogue in the mystery-thriller genre.

An interesting collection of some of Elmore Leonard’s short stories and two novellas. The key story of interest is “Fire in the Hole”, which became the basis for the TV series Justified. This is one of two novellas included, the other being Tenkiller, which also plays like a modern day western. Sparks (1999, 17pp) ***½  is the story of an insurance investigator looking into a house fire of a property owned by a wealthy widow. It has echoes of Double Indemnity and gets the collection off to a solid start. Hanging Out at the Buena Vista (1999, 5pp) **½ is a short throwaway vignette set in a nursing home where two elderly people are coming to terms with their mortality. Chickasaw Charlie Hoke (2001, 17pp) *** is the story of an out-of-work ex-ball player trying to trade off his name. The story is insubstantial but features strong characters. When the Women Come Out to Dance (2003, 17pp) **** is one of the strongest stories in the collection and concerns a red-headed ex-stripper who has married into money and become Mrs Mahmood. She hires a maid she suspects had killed her own husband with the intention she does the same for her. This story too has some marvellous noir-ish touches and a satisfying twist climax. Fire in the Hole (2002, 56pp) ****½ is the main draw here. It features US Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens, star of Leonard’s novels Pronto and Riding the Rap, as he returns to his home town in Kentucky and comes across Boyd Crowder, who he “dug coal with” before he became a lawman. Crowder is now a bigoted criminal looking to wage war against black Americans and take control of the local drug trade. Most of the characters used in the TV series are introduced here and this is the best of Leonard’s stories to feature Givens. Karen Makes Out (1996, 22pp) *** features another of Leonard’s popular creations, US Marshal Karen Sisco. This story demonstrates her fallibility when she unknowingly becomes romantically involved with a bank robber. The story plays out in pretty predictable fashion, but Leonard is obviously at home with his characters here. Hurrah for Capt. Early (1994, 17pp) ***½ is a Western story of a returning black soldier from the Cuban war who faces bigotry from cowboys in a town welcoming home a war hero. The story plays out well with a strong, dignified, central character in Bo Catlett. The Tonto Woman (1982, 17pp) *** is also set in the west, where a rancher has his Indian wife living in exile in a log cabin, where she is befriended by a charming Mexican cattle rustler. This story plays out more as a morality tale and has familiar tropes of the genre. The final story Tenkiller (2003, 60pp) ***½ features ex-Rodeo rider now Hollywood stunt man, Ben Webster returning to his homestead to find three criminals have rented the property on which they are stripping hijacked trucks. There is the re-kindling of a romance and a satisfying showdown thrown into the mix. It is a formula that Ace Atkins would explore in his Leonard-inspired Quinn Colson series. This ends a satisfying mix of stories that demonstrate Leonard’s strength with handling plot, characters and dialogue in his distinctive economical style.

Book Review – THE FALLEN (2017) by Ace Atkins

THE FALLEN by ACE ATKINS (2017, Corsair, 358pp) ****
Blurb: Mississippi sheriff Quinn Colson had to admit he admired the bank robbers. A new bank was hit almost every week, and the robbers rushed in and out with such skill and precision it reminded him of raids he’d led back in Afghanistan and Iraq when he was an army ranger. In fact, it reminded him so much of the techniques in the Ranger Handbook that he couldn’t help wondering if the outlaws were former Rangers themselves. And that was definitely going to be a problem. If he stood any chance of catching them, he was going to need the help of old allies, new enemies, and a lot of luck. The enemies he had plenty of. It was the allies and the luck that were going to be in woefully short supply.

The seventh book in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is a strong character driven entry. Its interesting to note that many TV series these days take on season long stories with arcs across their seasons. This was to give the TV series the feel of a novel and explore in depth character as well as plot and sub-plot. Well, we seem to have come full circle as Atkins’ series deftly transfers the concept of cross-season story arcs into his novel series, so with this book we are left on something of a cliffhanger, which leads us to look forward to the next instalment.

Atkins has grown in confidence with the series and this book, whilst it may be light on central plot, is driven by the many sub-plots that lie beneath. This allows him to invest time into his characters, with greater exploration of Colson’s reformed sister Caddy and the new owner of the lap-dancing bar, Fannie Hathcock, in particular. There is also a new love interest for Quinn in the form of Maggie Wilcox, who happens to have a direct link into the central plot as well. The book is also a turning point in the career of Quinn’s deputy, Liilie Virgil.

Atkins writes with great assurance and the dialogue is sparky and humorous; reminiscent of one of his heroes – Elmore Leonard. This then, is another excellent entry in a series that just gets better and better.

The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017) ****
The Sinners (2018)

Book Review – THE INNOCENTS (2016) by Ace Atkins

THE INNOCENTS  by ACE ATKINS (2016, Corasir, 372pp) ***½

Image result for ace atkins the innocentsBlurb: After being voted out of office and returning to the war zone he’d left behind, Quinn Colson is back in Jericho, trying to fix things with his still-married high school girlfriend and retired Hollywood stuntman father. Quinn knows he doesn’t owe his hometown a damn thing, but he can’t resist the pull of becoming a lawman again and accepts a badge from his former colleague, foul-mouthed acting Sheriff Lillie Virgil. Both officers have fought corruption in Tibbehah County before, but the case they must confront now is nothing like they’ve ever seen. When a former high school cheerleader is found walking a back road completely engulfed in flames, everyone in Jericho wants answers for the senseless act of violence. As Quinn and Lillie uncover old secrets and new lies, the entire town turns against them, and they soon learn that the most dangerous enemies may be the ones you trust most.

This is the sixth book in Ace Atkins’ series featuring Sheriff Quinn Colson set in the small county of Tibbehah. Atkins continues to produce quality writing, notably in character and dialogue echoing one of his heroes – Elmore Leonard. The plot itself is familiar, but does introduce a shock element in its closing chapters. There is also the ongoing arc surrounding Quinn’s family and his love life. These sub-plots remain unresolved at the novel’s conclusion compelling the reader to return for the next volume. Also unresolved is the set up of a new adversary in the form of Fannie Hathcock, who has taken over as the owner of the strip bar from the imprisoned Johnny Stagg. She establishes an antagonistic relationship with Lillie Virgil from the off, as the similarities in their personalities initially cause a clash, but ultimately creates a way they can be of mutual benefit. Whilst this novel is familiar to those who have read earlier books in the series, it is still an entertaining read and the unresolved arcs leave a hook to pull you in to the next adventure.

The Quinn Colson series:
The Ranger (2011) ***
The Lost Ones (2012) ***
The Broken Place (2013) ***
The Forsaken (2014) ***½
The Redeemers (2015) ****
The Innocents (2016) ***½
The Fallen (2017)
The Sinners (2018)

Book Review – THE REDEEMERS (2015) by Ace Atkins

THE REDEEMERS by ACE ATKINS (2015, Corsair, 370pp) ∗∗∗∗

Blurb: He is only in his early thirties, but now Quinn Colson is jobless – voted out of office as sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, thanks to the machinations of county kingpin Johnny Stagg. He has offers, in bigger and better places, but before he goes, he’s got one more job to do – bring down Stagg’s criminal operations for good. At least that’s the plan. But in the middle of the long, hot summer, a trio of criminals stage a bold, wall-smashing break-in at the home of a local lumber mill owner, making off with a million dollars in cash from his safe, which is curious, because the mill owner is wealthy – but not that wealthy. None of this has anything to do with Colson, but during the investigation, two men are killed, one of them the new sheriff. His friend, acting sheriff Lillie Virgil, and a dangerous former flame, Anna Lee Stevens, both ask him to step in, and reluctantly he does, only to discover that that safe contained more than just money – it held secrets. Secrets that could either save Colson – or destroy him once and for all.

The fifth novel in Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson series is the closest the author has come to emulating one of his writing heroes – Elmore Leonard. The story is populated with the type of characters Leonard employed in many of his crime novels set in the modern west. The plot itself is slight, being centred around a robbery, but the character interaction, double-crossing and the bigger picture of Colson’s mission to put Johnny Stagg behind bars keep the pages turning. Atkins has a great handle on his characters and embellishes them through their salty dialogue. Whilst the plot itself reaches a conclusion, some of the domestic threads that have ran through the series are left loose. there is also a signal in the series taking a change of direction in its final pages. Another strong addition to an excellent series.

Book Review – THE FORSAKEN by Ace Atkins (2014)

THE FORSAKEN by ACE ATKINS (Corsair, 2014, 370pp) ∗∗∗½
     Blurb: Thirty-six years ago, a nameless black man wandered into Jericho, Mississippi, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a pair of paratrooper boots. Less than two days later, he was accused of rape and murder, hunted down by a self-appointed posse, and lynched. Now evidence has surfaced of his innocence, and county sheriff Quinn Colson sets out not only to identify the stranger’s remains, but to charge those responsible for the lynching. As he starts to uncover old lies and dirty secrets, though, he runs up against fierce opposition from those with the most to lose – and they can play dirty themselves. Soon Colson will find himself accused of terrible crimes, and the worst part is, the accusations just might stick. As the two investigations come to a head, it is anybody’s guess who will prevail – or even come out of it alive.
     The Forsaken is Atkins’ fourth Quinn Colson book and is possibly the strongest in a series that just keeps getting better. The “old case” plot enables the author to examine Quinn Colson’s relationship with his father, who is involved in the case. In this book Atkins has gotten under the skin of his lead character more than any in the series since the debut The Ranger. The subject matter concerning the rape of a young teenager and the racist attitudes that prevailed in the 1970s is scrutinised through a 21st century lens, but Colson finds that old prejudices die hard. The emphasis on modern-day themes of corruption, greed and power provide an interesting contrast showing the human condition dictates there will always be moral battles to fight.
The book is well paced and the dialogue is witty and tough. There is less action  here than in the earlier books, but this gives the characters room to breathe with Atkins allowing time for each major protagonist. The finale is a slight disappointment in that it does not fully resolve all the issues presented, but with more books to follow Atkins is asking readers to invest in his world and it is certainly one worth revisiting.

Book Review – THE BROKEN PLACES (2013) by Ace Atkins

THE BROKEN PLACES by ACE ATKINS (2013, Corsair, Paperback, 432pp) ∗∗∗∗∗
Blurb: A year after becoming sheriff, Quinn Colson is faced with the release of an infamous murderer from prison. Jamey Dixon comes back to Jericho preaching redemption, and some believe him; but for the victim’s family, the only thought is revenge. Another group who doesn’t believe him – the men in prison from Dixon’s last job, an armoured car robbery. They’re sure he’s gone back to grab the hidden money, so they do the only thing they can: break out and head straight to Jericho themselves. Colson and his deputy, Lillie, know they’ve got their work cut out for them. But they don’t count on one more unwelcome visitor: a tornado that causes havoc just as events come to a head. Communications are down, the roads are impassable – and the rule of law is just about to snap.

9781472112149Ace Atkins’ third novel featuring Sheriff Quinn Colson maintains the solid standard of the first two books – The Ranger and The Lost Ones. The book weaves a tale of convicts on the run in search of their hidden loot, and the ex-convict who has turned to Christ and wants to marry Colson’s sister, with the natural disaster of a tornado hitting the town of Jericho.

Whilst the story holds no real surprises and unfolds in a similar fashion to the first two books in the series, the added dimension of the storm hitting the community makes for a large scale climax. The family conflict surrounding sister Caddy taking up with seemingly reformed and misunderstood Jamey Dixon, is also a familiar one, but essential to give the story some emotional clout. However, Atkins employs a tight writing style built around a group of strong characters, not least Colson’s support team including Deputy Lillie Virgil and the one-armed Boom.

The final showdown is suitably tense and whilst Atkins never scales the heights of Craig Johnson’s Longmire series, this is a perfectly entertaining read on its own terms.