“The Heathens: A Quinn Colson novel,” by Ace Atkins

Ace Atkins

Reviewed by Claire Hamner Matturro

Quinn Colson, the bold, ethical, and driven sheriff of Tibbehah County, Mississippi, is the worthy protagonist in a well-received eleven-book series by Ace Atkins. In the newest in the series, The Heathens (Putman 2021), a petite seventeen-year-old female, TJ Byrd, and her charming, thieving boyfriend, Ladarius, steal the show. As an ex-Army Ranger turned sheriff, Colson is tough, priding himself as someone who even without sleep is “able to keep moving while living off good cigars and black coffee.” But he doesn’t have anything over Tanya Jane when it comes to emotional toughness.

TJ is “five feet tall, skin as white as a china plate, and eyes that folks said reminded them of a Siberian husky.” She is her nine-year-old brother’s de facto mother. Their own mother, Gina Byrd, long ago opted for a wild party life filled with drugs, booze, and a cadre of rapidly rotating violent men, leaving her two kids more or less on their own. Often TJ must steal to eat, so from the get-go of the novel, she is a sympathetic yet wayward young woman.

Ladarius is a black kid, so fundamentally good-hearted and charming even the law enforcement officer—Deputy U.S. Marshall Lillie Virgil—likes him and offers help to him. Prior to the start of the novel, both TJ and Ladarius had a “come to Jesus” summer and gave up their hell-raising and thieving. But when both are suspected of killing TJ’s mom in a truly horrific manner, they don’t wait around to be arrested or worse—they run. Taking TJ’s brother and best friend Holly, with them only compounds their dire situation. Holly, a kid more at home in church than on the run, proves her loyalty by stealing her mother’s minivan for the gang’s escape.

Ladarius and TJ have a true and deep—and essentially non-sexual—relationship. Having each other’s back is a major part of it. Atkins captures them both quite well in this single paragraph:

TJ knew that if things got real rough, no one was better for a little smash and grab at a house or a fancy car along the way [than Ladarius], maybe trading up from that old minivan for something that the police wouldn’t recognize. Even though she and Ladarius were as different as different could be, a hard-ass redneck and smooth black kid from down in Sugar Ditch, they were survivors. If they had to steal, the Lord would most certainly understand.

The odds are stacked against TJ and Ladarius. They are being pursued by the U.S. marshals and two sheriffs—one being Colson and the other being a corrupt sheriff from the adjoining county—and a diverse group of villains and killers. Colson and the Marshalls want to bring the kids back alive, but everyone else on their trail has a motive to see them dead. TJ and Ladarius have no money and no plans. Further complicating their situation, they are saddled with John Wesley, who as a child has little to offer by way of help other than steadfast devotion. Holly is not cut out to be a fugitive, and her fears only drag them down.

In this quagmire, only Sheriff Quinn Colson questions whether TJ and Ladarius are guilty. Though he found damning evidence they—or at least TJ—killed Gina, he knows the girl from past dealings and does not believe her capable of killing her mother. Acting on this gut instinct, Colson sets out to find the truth, giving the story its gloss of police procedural as Colson digs through the history leading up to Gina’s death.

Atkins structures the novel effectively—starting with the kids five days into their running away, as they wait for Ladarius to steal a car so they can continue their desperate flight. Next, the novel backs up to when Gina first went missing, and then proceeds in chronological order until it connects with the point where the book starts. From there, it builds toward its climax. This technique allows for more mystery and suspense, as well as rapid-fire pacing.

By opening with the kids already in deep trouble, suspense exists from the first page. In truth, it wouldn’t be a Quinn Colson novel without that suspense, and its companion—violence. In that regard Atkins does not disappoint. TJ’s mom Gina was not just killed but dismembered and stuffed in a large barrel filled with bleach.

Yet, while Atkins does not shy from violence, his books do not depend upon suspense and action for their validity. Atkins knows exactly how to convey a scene, and he excels in crafting complex and beguiling characters. This book, like others in the series, hums with an authentic sense of time and place, and a certain palpable longing for something long gone or maybe never there to begin with.

Though Atkins’s main characters in The Heathens might be wounded by their lives, they persevere and transcend, lending themselves to a compelling, richly drawn story, where the gore is offset by strong themes of family, friendships, and loyalty. Once more, Ace Atkins shines as an author who can bring home the goods in a riveting story that owes as much to the people he creates as to the actions they take. A grand book, all in all.

Click here to purchase this book:

Leave a Reply