Books
2:15 pm
Mon April 19, 2010

Infamous by Ace Atkins

When Ace Atkins decided to drop his successful Nick Travers detective series in favor of meticulously researched, historical, stand-alone thrillers, some were dubious. Doubts are dispelled now, however.

Audio ?2010 AL Public Radio

When Ace Atkins decided to drop his successful Nick Travers detective series in favor of meticulously researched, historical, stand-alone thrillers, some were dubious. Doubts are dispelled now, however.

"White Shadow" dealt with criminals in Tampa, in 1955, "Wicked City" was set in the magnificently corrupt Phenix City, Alabama, "Devil's Garden" told the Fatty Arbuckle story as it has never been told, that is, accurately, and now we have Infamous," the violent, absurd, and truly comical tale of George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his beautiful and very sexy wife, Kathryn.

The story of Kelly and his wife has nearly been forgotten. After all, he never actually killed anyone and had only one big "score." Kelly has been called the era's most "inept" gangster, cursed with bad luck and poor decision-making?he was, more or less, a dope?and he was certainly the most henpecked of all the gangsters.
He and Kathryn are also the only Deep South gangsters of the era, George raised in Memphis and briefly a student at Mississippi State?the only Depression-era gangster to have been a college boy, and Kathryn born and raised in Saltillo, Mississippi. For too long have Yankees like John Dillinger and "Baby Face" Nelson hogged the headlines and the Hollywood roles. Now we have a genuine Son of the South to celebrate.

George Kelly was first a bootlegger and then a bank robber, like many another in the early thirties, but as time passed, banks had less in them to steal and the banks' defenses improved. In the summer of 1933 he pulled off his big score: the kidnapping of oilman Charlie Urschel, from his home in Oklahoma City.

The kidnapping was a success and the Kellys, after having everyone jumping through hoops, got their ransom money. What they did with it is just sad. Like many criminals of the day, the Kellys had the imagination of children. Since they were being chased for 56 days, for 20,000 miles, from Oklahoma to Chicago to Texas and back again, they spent many nights in the seediest imaginable roadside motel cabins. When they were in big city hotels, the Kellys would rent the honeymoon suite or the presidential suite and behave like college kids on spring break. The big treat, since they hardly dared to go to restaurants or night clubs, was to order steaks and whiskey from room service, and leave the room in shambles as if they were a badly behaved rock band.

Kathryn would sometimes go out during the day to buy masses of dresses, shoes and underwear, along with movie magazines. In the evening she would nag George about why they weren't more infamous.

As for many women of the times, the movie magazines were practically an addiction for Kathryn. She loved the popular films of the day, from the Busby Berkeley dancing spectaculars to the love stories to the Edward G. Robinson gangster movies. Kathryn wanted to live like a movie star, craved celebrity, even hoped that she and George would be portrayed in the movies, and hated how little press coverage they were getting, but of course, it was their pictures in the paper that prevented them from going to nightclubs. Poor Kathryn. What a dilemma. George had to content himself with buying fancy cars and tipping bellhops $20 bills in order to show off.

There was among all these gangsters perpetual talk of retiring to Mexico or South America or even Canada, but none ever did. Europe, for these ignorant provincials, was out of the question, culturally beyond their imaginations.
As with his previous novels, Atkins has researched this book thoroughly, mainly in 8,000 pages of FBI files, so there are many interesting bits of law enforcement trivia. Early in the novel there is a bloody shoot-out in the street in Kansas City, with the bad guys wielding Thompson submachine guns and the cops 38's. The colorful ex-Texas Ranger Gus T. Jones, now one of the first FBI agents, cabled J. Edgar Hoover: "Agents cannot work armed with peashooters. Please advise." It seems that then as now the bad guys often had more fire power than the good guys.
The good guys have some other tricks though, even in those pre-CSI days. To get from place to place, the gangsters drove, albeit sometimes-speedy 12-cylinder Cadillacs. The FBI, however, would sometimes fly ahead and be there waiting. The FBI also had elaborate fingerprinting equipment and, even in 1933, equipment to make an actual recording of tapped telephone conversations. The gangsters never really had a chance.

The plot of Infamous is so bizarre and so unlikely that one can rest assured "you can't make this stuff up."

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Telev on April 19, 2010ision literary interview show Bookmark. His latest book is A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama.

 

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