Book Review: The Heathens by Ace Atkins
The Heathens by Ace Atkins is the 11th Quinn Colson novel, as the sheriff and his former deputy Lillie Virgil find themselves on opposite sides of a case for the first time after a woman is found dead and three delinquent teens go on the run.
Sheriff Quinn Colson thinks he’s finally found some peace and quiet in Tibbehah County, Mississippi, a reward for years of his and his associates’ hard work and sacrifices in the process of ridding the county of its former criminal kingpins. He’s enjoying married life with his wife, Maggie; stepson, Brandon; and newborn daughter, Halley, while taking care of the usual small-time, small-town crime. Life is actually getting downright pleasant in the county seat of Jericho now that the corruption that was holding it back has been rooted out.
Nearly every storefront was occupied now, including a new coffee shop, a Vietnamese restaurant, and a mixed martial arts studio. The town looked better than Quinn could ever remember. Trees and bushes were trimmed, sidewalks fixed, and store canopies new and mended.
“Ever miss the way it was?” Varner asked.
“Nope,” Quinn said.
“Me, either. All y’all can do now is fuck it all up.”
“Appreciate the confidence in the younger generation, Luther.”
Alas, it’s the younger generation that forms the wildly beating heart of Quinn’s next big case when local liquor store owner Chester Pratt files a missing persons report on his much younger girlfriend, Gina Byrd. Gina’s 17-year-old daughter, TJ, insists that Mom went mudding in Louisiana with friends and that she can take care of her 9-year-old brother, John Wesley, by herself just fine, thank you very much. But after Gina’s remains are found cut up in a barrel over in neighboring Parsham County, TJ abruptly goes on the run, taking John Wesley as well as her boyfriend, Ladarius, and best friend, Holly, with her.
Chester insists that TJ must be responsible for her mother’s gruesome slaying, as she had threatened both him and Gina with violence if they tried to end her interracial relationship with Ladarius by sending her away to a Christian girls’ academy. Quinn’s former deputy and current U.S. Marshall Lillie Virgil, who grew up with Gina and has a soft spot for her wayward friend, is convinced that TJ has been trouble from the cradle. Running away certainly makes TJ look guilty as sin, but Quinn wants to give TJ the benefit of the doubt, as he uses a rare phone call to try to persuade the increasingly desperate teenager to come home.
“I get blamed for everything,” she said. “Even when I didn’t do it. Even when it’s not my fault. Sometimes you get looked down on so much, you just start acting like what’s expected of you. You know? What’s the damn point? Might as well be an outlaw. It’s what folks want to see.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I ran wild when I was your age,” he said. “I stole some cars. Got drunk a lot. Hunted on posted land. Hell, one time me and my best friend stole a fire truck.”
“Ask anybody,” Quinn said. “I was mad as hell and didn’t know why.”
“I know what you’re doing,” TJ said. “And I don’t have time for no Dr. Phil bullshit, Sheriff.[“]
When the runaways fall in with a fellow teen with savvy social media skills, their case goes viral, with TJ pleading her innocence for the world to see. But there are people gunning for TJ and her crew, people with violent tendencies and little scruple against using them. Soon, it’s a race against time as Quinn, alternately at odds and working with Lillie, must track down the kids before people with far more nefarious intentions do.
Based on true events that Ace Atkins covered as a journalist, his 11th Quinn Colson novel finds Quinn at cross-purposes with Lillie for the first time in their careers as they each juggle parenthood with their responsibilities as law enforcement officers. Besides rethinking a tragic criminal case, The Heathens also continues the series’ terrific examination of rural crime and values, kicking over shibboleths to show off the good, bad, and ugly of life in the modern South.
After the story arc-ending events of the previous book, The Revelators, this installment is a great jumping-on point for readers new to the series. But be warned: nature abhors a vacuum, and just because Quinn has gotten rid of one set of bad guys doesn’t mean another isn’t waiting to ooze its way into power, as the ending tantalizingly promises.