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Tue April 22, 2008
In Wicked City, he fictionalizes actual events in the Phenix City of 1954, a place so awful, Atkins writes, "no author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it."
By Don Noble
Ace Atkins' career has tacked this way and that over the years, but has never strayed very far from crime, especially murder.
After graduating from Auburn with a degree in journalism, Atkins worked as a crime reporter for the Tampa Tribune and there got a Pulitzer nomination for a seven-part series about the death of a Tampa socialite in 1956.
Leaving newspaper work for full-time crime-fiction writing, Atkins created Nick Travers, a New Orleans-based Tulane professor whose academic specialty is the Delta blues, and published four Nick Travers novels: Crossroad Blues, Leavin' Trunk Blues, Dark End of the Street, and Dirty South. Atkins, having established a loyal readership for the Nick Travers series, had it made. But he chose to abandon his detective series and began writing stand-alone crime novels. First came White Shadow, set in the criminal underworld of 1955 Tampa. In Wicked City, he fictionalizes actual events in the Phenix City of 1954, a place so awful, Atkins writes, "no author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it."
The story has been told in earlier books on the subject, in the film The Phenix City Story, and in the recent study by Alan Grady, When Good Men Do Nothing: The Assassination of Albert Patterson. Atkins has studied all these and more, and conducted extensive interviews with John Patterson, the son of the murdered state attorney general-elect. John Patterson would later become governor of Alabama and then a judge on the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Mr. Patterson is a character in this novel, as are other real-life figures such as Big Jim Folsom, Governor Gordon Persons, (who was, in fact, Truman Capote's cousin). Also depicted are Ralph Mathews, the sheriff of Phenix City, Bert Fuller, the notorious chief deputy, county solicitor Arch Ferrell, and other even more unsavory creatures.
Using a traditional device, Atkins has made a relatively minor character the protagonist, in this case Lamar Murphy, an ex-boxer turned Texaco station operator, who becomes Phenix City's reform sheriff. Much of this novel is done in Murphy's voice.
Atkins has also created a cast of fictional characters, Reuben Stokes, saloon owner and his son, Billy, and Billy's girlfriend Lorelei, an unhappy hooker.
The plot is partly too well-known, partly invented. Albert Patterson, elected attorney general despite some really gross vote tampering, is killed in an alley near his office, and the investigation commences. In this novel there is a semi-secret committee of brave citizens to clean up Phenix City, the Russell Betterment Association. The place is so corrupt that order must be imposed from outside and General Walter "Crack" Hanna brings in the National Guard and declares martial law.
Suspects are, as they say, legion. All the redneck mafia wanted Patterson dead because he threatened their booze, drugs, gambling, and prostitution business, fueled by the GIs from Fort Benning. Most of the incumbent politicians wanted him dead because they knew he had hard evidence of their vote-tampering. In a sense, everybody "done it," or wanted it done.
Atkins' success here is not in the plot. That could not be altered much, and in fact it is still not certain who was guilty of what. His success as a novelist is in characterization, in the creation of individual scenes, and most importantly, in his shocking, disgusting portrait of the town itself. All the gambling was rigged, vice was a way of life, and even complaining about the loaded dice could get your throat slit and your body dropped through a trap door in the floor of the bar, into the swirling, muddy Chattahoochie River. The prostitutes were not merely exploited; they were beaten and starved by their "masters" and even tattooed, with identifying serial numbers, like animals, inside their lower lips.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.