Read: July 23 – 24, 2019
This just feels like too much of a novel to do an adequate job with. It’s been a week and a half (at the time of writing), and I’m still thinking about this book and everything Atkins did in it. I’m honestly not up to the task of doing it right. But I’ll give it a shot, with the up-front caveat that I’m missing a lot. You just need to read this.
Twenty years ago, when Quinn was in High School, a student a couple of years older than him went missing in the woods while hunting—and everyone came out in droves to look for him. For weeks the town, the media, and the Sheriff’s Department (under Quinn’s uncle) devoted every waking hour to finding him. They eventually found his body near his rifle and ruled it a suicide. But no one was satisfied with that finding. Now, two New York journalists have arrived to re-open the case, look at things from a new perspective, and hopefully come up with enough material (and, better, a satisfying conclusion) for the next season of their podcast about missing people.
Quinn’s new wife, Maggie, had been the boy’s girlfriend and initially helps the podcasters out a lot. The boy’s family isn’t united about this new search for answers, but most people are willing to help (while being suspicious of the two). A lot of old secrets, old prejudices, and unanswered questions and qualms are brought forth from the recesses of the collective memory of the community. A tragedy that had shaken the county decades previously is doing the same thing again.
These two are in town for months, stirring up trouble, stirring up gossip, stirring up emotions (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not), and generally being a distraction for Quinn. He’d frankly love to devote energy, time and attention to solving a cold case, but there’s a bigger, more dangerous, and frankly, very contemporary threat—Senator Jimmy Vardaman. Vardaman’s been on the fringes (and frequently closer) to the problems around Tibbehah County for quite some time, but now he’s running in the gubernatorial primary and is doing much better than expected. If he wins this, he’s a shoo-in for the actual election. Tapping into a false sense of nostalgia for the Mississippi that never was, a healthy dose of racism, and empty platitudes—and a healthy dose of Syndicate cash—Vardaman’s doing better than anyone expected.
There are a number of crimes that Quinn strongly believes are tied to Vardaman, but he can’t find enough proof. Every time he comes close, something prevents it from happening—he has a few opportunities here to bring Vardaman down before primary and devotes all his energy toward them. One of the strongest themes running through this novel is the intersection of crime and politics, and how that affects both enterprises. Too often (in fiction and reality), politics boils down to the influence of and lust for money and power—which is pretty much what crime (particularly the more organized forms of it) is. Vardaman’s not the only example this series or this novel has of it, but he’s the current exemplar in Atkins’ world.
Meanwhile, Fannie Hathcock is still running the show when it comes to illicit materials and licit (but not fully-clothed) women in Tibbehah County. Recent events have left things shaky for her, and Vardaman’s ascent (and those he owes favors to) will make things shakier. We don’t see much of what that means in this book, but I think we will soon. I don’t think Fannie is a woman to be taken lightly—the power structures on both sides of the law may be less-than-welcoming to a woman—and I don’t expect her to go quietly (if she goes at all).
My biggest complaint is about Boom Kimbrough. Yes, Quinn’s best friend and staunchest ally (no offense to Maggie or Lillie), is a presence throughout—but is absent from the major story, and his subplot doesn’t get that much space. Boom’s primarily recovering from—to some extent—the events of The Sinners, and that’s about all we see from him. He and Caddy spend a lot of time together, but if he has more than one conversation with Quinn, I’d be surprised. I should’ve taken notes on that front (but who’d have thought I’d have to?). I assume we’ll see more of him in future books—I just don’t want to wait.
Using the podcast—and the stir it creates—to revisit many of the characters’ storylines, see how they got to where they are now (possibly to look at them in a different light)—is a brilliant move and Atkins uses it very effectively. There are moments recalled because of this podcast that I’d forgotten about or hadn’t seen in relation to the greater story arcs. Also, it’s a great way to help the reader see that other parts of the county may not see Quinn’s actions the same way the reader has. By using the podcast, Atkins is able to create drama with this as well as avoiding several dull information dumps.
Something that I don’t particularly enjoy—but respect and appreciate—is the way things ended. I’ve seen several people call it a cliff-hanger of an ending. I don’t really see it that way, but I can see where they’re coming from. Now, I’m not going to get into the details for obvious reasons (for one, I’m not a monster), but I can say that it was a very noir ending. Which fits, this is a dark series—fun, sometimes funny—but a real Southern noir. This is Colson at the noirest, particularly the last chapter. It was a perfect ending to a great book—so don’t take my not particularly enjoying as a complaint. I’d prefer an ending where justice triumphs, evil is vanquished, and Quinn rides off into the sunset. That ain’t the world we live in, that’s not the world of Tibbehah County, and this novel is better at showing us than the others have been (not that things like a tornado wiping out huge parts of the county are exactly rainbows and unicorns, either).
Can this be read as a jumping-on point? I actually think it can—it easily serves as a “Where We Are Now/Where We Have Been” novel. But just know that you’re going to want to go back and read the others to understand everything talked about (much of which is alluded to, rather than explained—the way you’d talk to an old friend about something that happened four years ago). Obviously, the best thing to do is get The Ranger and work your way up to this point, but this would be the best jumping-on point since The Ranger.
The Shameless is the longest novel in the series, easily the most ambitious, and very possibly the best (I can’t think of a better one, but I’d have to re-read them. Which isn’t a bad idea, actually.). It feels like a change in the series—which is hard to describe without spoiling, but if Chapter One was Quinn’s struggles against Stagg, Chapter Two would be everything up to this book until Stagg went to prison, and then Chapter Three is whatever comes after The Shameless. Something tells me this small-town sheriff is missing the days when his biggest problem was Stagg.
I really can’t recommend this enough—Quinn Colson and Ace Atkins are some of the best in the genre today and The Shameless is the best proof of that.