At the beginning of Ace Atkins’ new Quinn Colson novel, The Innocents, we are right back in the middle of Tibbehah County, a fictional community hidden away in the hill country of north Mississippi. It’s the setting for what Atkins’ himself has described as a “redneck Game of Thrones.” Lillie Virgil is the County’s sheriff, having replaced former Army ranger Quinn Colson. Colson soon rejoins the sheriff’s department to help Lillie investigate a horrific crime.
For the first time in the Colson series we meet Fannie Hathcock, the new proprietor of the Rebel Club, a notorious strip joint once owned by Johnny Stagg, a chief villain in earlier novels. (Stagg now spends his days staring through prison bars.) At the Rebel Club, Fannie is interviewing a new dancer, a former high-school cheerleader, Milly Jones, who is looking for a way to make some cash and get out of Tibbehah.
From reading the book jacket, we already know that Milly comes to a terrible end – set afire and left for dead, found by a passerby near a road as flames engulf her. The novel’s set-up has the tragic, real-life inspiration in the death of the young Jessica Chambers, a teenager found walking down rural road in Courtland, her body engulfed in flames. Chambers died from her injuries. A man is now in custody for the crime.
“I think everyone in north Mississippi, and later around the country, followed the Chambers case,” Atkins said. “I covered crime as a reporter in Florida for many years and had never even heard of anything so horrific. While I was writing the book, I wasn’t so sure detectives would ever find her killer.
Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson novels are chock-full of references, direct and indirect, to the works of William Faulkner. Many of Atkins’ character names have familiar ties to the immortal world of Yoknapatawpha County, as illustrated in The Innocents: Quinn Colson (a la Quentin, The Sound and the Fury), Caddy, Quinn’s sister (The Sound and the Fury), Jason, Quinn’s father (Jason Compson is father of Quentin in The Sound and the Fury); Milly and Washburn Jones, Milly’s father (Milly and Wash Jones are from Absalom, Absalom!); and Ophelia Bundren as the coroner (Bundren is the family taking the body of Addie Bundren to Jefferson, Miss. for burial).
We asked Ace about this connection, particularly what we’ve missed:
Q. Names from Faulkner continue to play a big role in this new novel. But I’m curious: what’s one Faulkner reference that you’ve worked to put into a novel that no one has ever asked you about because, likely, they never picked up on it?
A. Ha! Few people get the Faulkner tributes. I had a Lena Grove in The Ranger and now Milly Jones and her father, Wash. Tibbehah County holds many of Faulkner’s people in the 21st Century. I have Ike McCaslin as a deputy in Tibbehah County and no one seems to have spotted that one.
Unlike many crime novels, Milly’s death does not happen at the beginning of The Innocents as means to set the stage for a book-length whodunit. Instead, Atkins develops Milly into a fully realized, heart-and-soul teenager, giving her a chance to grow on us, give us insight into her dreams and develop into a person we care about.
“I did not want Milly to be just a victim or a body,” Atkins said. “I wanted her to be a major player in this world before her death, not just a device. A reader pointed out to me that the scene was a bit like Psycho where we know we’re headed but have a lot to explore until that point. I guess Hitchcock is hardwired to my brain. Without spending a lot of time with Milly, she doesn’t mean anything to the story.”
Milly’s death comes about midway through the story. By that point, there is a long list of suspects, and the reader will be guessing – probably incorrectly – the rest of the way about who did it.
Like all of the other Quinn Colson novels, Atkins immerses us in a hard-boiled deep South, replete with gritty language, hidden motives, and unspeakable horrors even beyond the crime against Milly. It is a novel that will satisfy all those who love to engage with the dirty South.
The Innocents is the second of two new books released by Atkins this year. In a first for him, Atkins’ work appears as a graphic novel in Last Fair Deal Gone Deal, the first story Atkins ever wrote about Nick Travers. Travers is a New Orleans detective that was at the center of Atkins’ first published novels. Barry Hannah once described the Travers’ series as “blues-detective” fiction. The graphic novel adaption, the first in a planned series for all of the Travers’ adventures, is a treat to revisit the Bourbon Street-stylings of the detective who started it all for Atkins:
“The new graphic novel exceeded any expectations I had,” Atkins said. “The artist Marco Finnegan did an amazing job bringing Nick back. I’m very protective of Nick, as he was my first creation and the hero of my first stories. But Marco just took the story and ran with it. If anything his vision in the graphic novel only made him better and more interesting with many more stories to follow. And yes, his drawing of Nick is spot on! Down to the hipster sideburns.”
Atkins will sign copies of The Innocents and Last Fair Deal Gone Down at Lemuria Books in Jackson on July 28 beginning at 5 p.m.
» Gregg Mayer is a writer and lawyer who lives in Flowood.