My 12-year-old daughter came home from school recently with the news that historical fiction is now defined as any book that is set prior to the Vietnam War. This bothers me, primarily because I remember the Vietnam War. For me, history (at least at this point in time) is what happened before, or at least shortly after, I was born. By either standard, however, Ace Atkins has been writing wonderful, addicting and unforgettable historical crime fiction for the past few years. His latest novel, INFAMOUS, is about Machine Gun Kelly, a Depression-era outlaw who became a household name both in spite of and because of his own ineptness.
My knowledge of Kelly prior to reading Atkins’s fictionalized account of him in INFAMOUS was from a low-budget 1958 film directed by Roger Corman and starring Charles Bronson. One of James Taylor’s best and most underappreciated songs was titled after and about Kelly, who was one of the first of the FBI’s notorious Public Enemies. Yet, as Atkins demonstrates, Kelly’s ineptness in both his professional and personal life was almost comedic.
Professionally, Kelly (born George Barnes) and his partner in crime had a knack for successfully robbing small banks for little payoff. It was Kelly’s one chance at the “big time” --- the kidnapping of Oklahoma oilman Charlie Urschel --- that captured the public’s imagination and led to Kelly’s downfall. As far as his personal life was concerned, Kelly’s wife, Kathryn, was a fireball of a woman who cuckolded him every chance she had, hedging her bets and often playing her husband off against law enforcement so that she could move in whichever way the wind was blowing.
The man in charge of the kidnapping investigation --- and the pursuit of Kelly --- was FBI Special Agent Gus T. Jones, a former Texas ranger and an “old school” law enforcement officer who looked in quiet bemusement at the younger agents with whom he was frequently called upon to serve. The story of Jones’s pursuit of Kelly, taking place over the course of just a little less than two months, is chronicled with an over-the-shoulder narrative concerning all of the parties involved. Atkins, as he has been with his three previous historical works, is nothing less than phenomenal. Comparisons with Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy are understandable and inevitable, but Atkins is a talent apart but equal of those two grandmasters.
In the course of his research for INFAMOUS, Atkins drove the roads, rode the rails, and visited the hotels that Kelly and the pursuing Jones traveled and utilized during the course of their cat-and-mouse romp through the west, and his prose is informed by the dirt and dust that he picked up along the way. I have said this before, but it bears repeating: Atkins is one of those very few authors whose prose is so riveting that the reality of it supplants the world around the reader’s own.
This is especially true of INFAMOUS; set within the first third of the 20th century, it makes our modern conveniences --- cell phones, cable television, mp3 players, and yes, computers --- seem like anachronisms. It is not only Atkins’s penchant for historical accuracy that makes the book such a joy to read. He is also a master storyteller, switching scenes during the course of the narrative to build suspense, which reaches a hair-raising pitch even though one knows what ultimately occurs. The best element, however, is Atkins’s ability to turn a sharp phrase. The man is, quite simply, one of our best contemporary writers. If you underline your favorite passages while reading, you will find at least one per page here.
INFAMOUS is a book of such quality that readers unfamiliar with the author will add his name to their must-read list. If you’ve read him before, he’s already on your list and will stay there --- carved in stone --- after you read his latest.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011