By Heidi Simmons
The Innocents
by Ace Atkins

People are complicated. Rich or poor, whether it’s due to nurture or nature, humans are more often than not in some form of survival mode. In Ace Atkins’ The Innocents (Putnam, 384 pages) there is a fine line between predator and prey.

The series character of Quinn Colson is a macho and competent man with a sense of righteous indignation. An Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, Colson regularly goes back to the Middle East to serve and train military or police forces. It has become more of an escape from his small hometown in Mississippi, rather than a calling. Flawed and damaged, Colson seeks a simple life, but events that involve family, friends, lovers and outlaws regularly dictate otherwise.

This is author Atkins’ sixth installment in his Quinn Colson series. The last Colson novel, The Redeemers, began with Quinn’s final day as sheriff after being voted out of office and replaced by a corrupt bureaucrat. In The Innocents, Colson’s best deputy, Lillie Virgil, is now the Sheriff. She’s smart, fearless and talks like a stevedore.

When some local boys get into trouble, Lillie wants them to serve time for their crimes, but there is pressure to not be hard on the young men so they can still have some kind of a future. With Quinn back from another tour in the Middle East, Lillie seeks his council.

Matters get worse when a former, well-liked high school cheerleader is found set on fire walking on a highway. When the girl dies, the incident makes national news and the pressure is on the sheriff to find the girl’s killer. Lillie gives Quinn a badge and together they investigate half a dozen dangerous and shady suspects.

The bad guys in the story are vast and their ties to criminal activities reach beyond the county, but also connect to the small town boys recently in trouble. Lillie refuses to cave to local pressure even with her job on the line. When a beloved high school coach becomes a target in the investigation, the community wants Lillie out of office. But there is no stopping her. The case isn’t over until she says it over.

Although it is not necessary to read the first five novels in the series to enjoy The Innocents, the story takes place in a very developed world with a cast of returning characters.

Author Atkins creates a compelling southern vibe that captures the poverty and desperation of the local people who live and struggle to survive in the community. The beauty and serenity of the north Mississippi region is tainted by the lack of opportunities, a low-life culture and a limited future for the youth. As law enforcement, Lillie and Quinn see the worst side of people but still have compassion and respect for the community. Both have their own personal challenges to contend with as well.

I like Quinn and I like Lillie. They are exceptionally brave and honorable people. Neither takes shit from anybody and they always know exactly what to say to put bad-asses in their place. An admirable trait! They are aware that they cannot change the world, and that they can only do their best to set it right. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always work out.

The first third of the book spends time reacquainting the reader with the colorful returning cast of characters and introduces a new generation of high school graduates who are making a name for themselves within the county — in not such a positive way. This takes some time to absorb while the greater mystery slowly begins to take shape.

Atkins includes timely issues like the plight of young males with no work opportunities, drug and physical abuse and the prejudice of seeing black men only as criminals.

The real bad guy is pulled right from the case against Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky revealing the challenge law enforcement faces trying to convict a popular member of the community.

I appreciated The Innocents as a title for this story. It not only represents the young victims, but applies to many of the characters, who because of socio-economics and family dysfunction must do whatever it takes to survive the sometimes formidable challenges of life itself.

This series delivers tough action and serious villains. There is always a complicated mystery that requires clever detective work. The Sheriffs, whether Quinn or Lillie, are colorful and engaging as they go about dealing with the local people and vicious crime.

The Redeemers is available in paperback now and The Innocents goes on sale this week.