Some pretty fucking swell authors have taken a swing at the Depression-era gangster novel over the years, and many of those projects have turned out no-shit aces. Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana teamed up for the first time with Pretty Boy Floyd, Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid was arguably his best book of the last decade (okay, so Mr. Paradise was pretty genius too), and Steve Thayer guaranteed a permanent place in this Minnesota boy’s heart after his debut novel Saint Mudd. As much ass as the aforementionables all kicked, Ace Atkins outdoes them all with Infamous, a novel large enough in scope and specific enough in historical detail to appease James Ellroy fans, yet also sharp and breezily paced enough for readers with a bent for books of a more Leonardian stripe (I think I just succeeded in making Elmore Leonard sound pretentious).
Infamous is centered around the George “Machine Gun” Kelly gang’s kidnapping of Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschell and the FBI manhunt that ensued. With a cast of characters that includes famous gangsters like Kid Cann, Al Karpis, Harvey Bailey, the Barkers, Jelly Nash, Bonnie and Clyde, and Verne Miller, and a plot that takes the reader all over the flyover states in 1933, this is some epic shit to be fucking sure. But as I alluded to up top, this is pain-free historical fiction from an author who knows how to seamlessly balance the period heavy-lifting with sex, violence and laughs.
Infamous is a fucking feast for students of the genre and the era. There’s a great, rousing scene about what really happened who was really involved in the Kansas City Massacre, fascinating glimpses into the cultural phenomenon that was the Chicago World’s Fair, and (on a personal geek note) a look at good ol’ St. Paul when it was heaven for yeggs and syndicate boys. Shit, the window into the vast underworld network that protected and connected the gangsters of the day is alone good enough fucking reason to pick up this book.
But, like the Nerd (and any book critic worth a good goddamn) always says, this exciting world Atkins has painted for us wouldn’t mean a thing if it weren’t for the characters that inhabit it. You’ve got great folks like Gus Jones and Doc White on the lawman side, ex-rangers turned FBI agents who have to adjust to the new way of fighting crime, men old enough to recall hunting down bandits on horseback and stringing them from trees moments after capture. There’s Charles Urschell himself, a man of great and sheltered privilege whose captain-of-industry confidence is shattered when violence rips through his cloistered life.
But you better believe that the characters who really turned the Nerd’s crank in Infamous were all the famous badasses. Unsung bank-robbing titan of the day Harvey Bailey is rendered as a cunning and cool old hand with a painful past. His partner Verne Miller is a sociopath who kills without a second’s thought. George Kelly is a relatively gentle soul who loves a drink, a laugh, his gal, the funny papers, and the rush of a daring bank job. His wife Kit, on the other hand, is the true star of Infamous. She’s shown to be the brains of the Urschell job, a sexy femme fatale with more balls and ambition than any of the tough guys around her.
I haven’t read any other shit from Ace Atkins as of yet, but you better believe he’s on my fucking radar now and sure to be a fixture of my TBR pile from now on. I cannot (yet) speak for the rest of his books, but you’d be well-fucking-served to toss Infamous onto the top of your own stack toot-fucking-sweet.