Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Ace Atkins: The Ranger

A long time ago, the man who ran the - now long closed - Murder Ink bookstore in Dawson Street vented his irritation to me about the decision to put the words "A Jane Whitefield Book" on the cover of the reprint of Vanishing Act.  His point, and it was a good one, was that this told the reader immediately that there would be a whole bunch more of these books, and thus removed any doubt about whether Jane Whitefield was really in danger. This was the thought of an absolute purist; on the one hand, it was his living to sell these books and people DO seem to buy things which they know there's more of, and on the other hand, if you'd ever read even one Thomas Perry book, you wouldn't be expecting the protagonist to bite it before the end. Right on the principle, maybe not picking the best example. But it was just that principle which made him go on to recommend Killing Suki Flood by Robert Leininger, a really gripping little noir which worked on a first read because it really did make you think that everything was on the line - it also works on a re-read because it's a well written book, full of sharp dialogue and clever observation.

I thought of that conversation every few minutes as I was reading The Ranger, because the kindle version I was reading had (Quinn Colson 1) at the top of every page, making it all too clear that no matter what else happened, Quinn Colson was going to be just fine. Which really undercut the mood which Atkins was trying to invoke all the way through the book, of a world in which bad things happen even when good people try to do the right thing. A writer does his best, and then some marketeer wrecks the mood with a badly chosen notion.

Well, in some imaginary world where I'd bought the book as a real book and presumably something that stupid didn't mar the top of every page, would it have been a better book? Probably. Was it a good book anyhow? Much to my surprise, it was.

I knew two things picking up the book; one was that Ace Atkins was easily the most cosmically juvenile author name I'd seen since I'd learnt how to read, and the other was that the estate of Robert B Parker had hired him to finish up Parker's last couple of manuscripts. Since I'm one of the people who think that a) Parker went to hell in a hand basket after about the fifth Spenser book [1], and b) his "completion" of  Poodle Springs is the literary equivalent of acting on the idea that the Mona Lisa would look better with ringlets and Ray-bans, my heart quailed rather at the notion that Parker's estate thought this guy would be just the fellow to finish what even Parker had balked at. Those misgivings apart, a quick glance at the style had me thinking it would at least be a fun read, and when it got cheap on kindle I bought a copy.

In a way, The Ranger is what Lee Child might have thought he was going to do before he realised how much money there was in giving us his gloriously moronic power fantasies instead. Quinn Colson is a US Army Ranger on leave, going back to his one dead horse town to discover it's a seething den of scum and villainy that makes Mos Eisley look like the nice parts of Monaco. So he sets to cleaning it all up, as heroes be wont to do in these narratives. If he'd been Jack Reacher, he'd have pounded on people right and left, effortless in his superiority, before wandering off into the night to wreak havoc in the sequel. Since, blessedly, he ain't Jack Reacher, he's neither so decisive nor so unstoppable, and therein lies much of the charm of the book.

Well, charm might be the wrong word. Tibebah County is somewhere between an out-take from Harlan County and the bleak world of Winter's Bone, without being quite as compelling as either of them - in fairness, not much is that good. The landscape and people are relentlessly messed up, and Atkins catches that; he's no Chandler, and he'll use the same simple words again and again rather than ring the changes, but there's an unsentimental solidness to Tibbehah, and to the little edge on glimpses of the ordinary lives bobbing on its surface.

It's not all brilliant. There's a Bubba Rogowski in the shape of a huge one armed black buddy for Quinn Colson, which left me feeling that Atkins was pushing his luck. And at least one of the villains doesn't make enough sense; Gowrie doesn't scale right. There's a moment when he switches from being some kind of stooge to the prince of darkness and we never see anything which helps that to make sense, even if you buy the notion that Quinn Colson has goaded him over the edge. But most of the side characters feel weathered and real, and all the bad decisions carry weight and consequences; this is a world where if you get hit in the face with a frying pan, you go to the hospital, and people who make bad decisions fret and try to renegotiate them rather than moving on like steam driven monoliths of certainty.

It all ends in a messy open-ended way, as much anything does in real life, but the openings are good ones; a sequel isn't a bad idea, or an excuse to throw Quinn Colson into someone else's woodchipper; there's unfinished business of all kinds in Tibbehah County. And I think I'm following it.

[1] In fairness, the writing was on the wall long before that. I actually wrote "Oh, come ON" in the margin of one of the more overwrought pages of the first or second book, almost the only time I ever wrote on a book.

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