Review

Wicked City

by Ace Atkins

WICKED CITY continues Ace Atkins’s practice ---
inaugurated in his last book, WHITE SHADOW --- of crafting a novel
by basing it upon real world events visualized through a fictional
prism. It concerns Phenix City, Alabama, in the early 1950s, a
small town where corruption, graft and vice had taken root to the
degree that, like the kudzu native to the region, it appeared to be
impossible to uproot.

The relative complacency of the townspeople to the extent and
degree of the wickedness --- there is no other word for it --- is
shattered by the cold-blooded murder of Albert Patterson, a
crime-fighting attorney who had campaigned on a promise to clean up
Phenix City. Fresh off a primary victory that all but assures him
of being elected the Attorney General of Alabama, Patterson is
gunned down in a downtown alley. His son, John, vows to take his
place, and not only to see that the killers are brought to justice
but also to fulfill his campaign promise. Among John’s early
recruits is Lamar Murphy, a quietly upright and decent soul whose
former career as a boxer has given way to a quiet married life that
involves nothing more complicated than operating a service station
by day and spending time with family in the evening.

At first, Murphy is underestimated by the entrenched vice lords of
the city, referred to derisively as a “palooka” and a
“grease monkey.” When they realize, however, that he is
a serious opponent to be reckoned with, Murphy soon has a price on
his head, one that will not be easy to escape. But as time passes,
Murphy’s example leads others to stand up as well, including
witnesses to Patterson’s murder who previously had been
reticent to speak up. Armed with truth, a righteous indignation and
firepower, Murphy and John take what is sure to be their one and
only shot at cleaning up Phenix City and avenging the murder of
Albert Patterson.

Atkins has done yeoman’s work researching Phenix City, and
the results show that. It turns out that the author had relatives
who were intimately familiar --- and involved --- with the
goings-on in Phenix City; indeed, one of the characters here is
based on a composite of Atkins’s grandfathers. Atkins met and
interviewed Murphy’s direct descendents as well, so that,
combined with other extensive research, one feels at times while
reading the book that one is in the process of actually witnessing
the events. One example of many: Murphy, at one point, leads a raid
on what is referred to as the “Rabbit Farm.”
Atkins’s description of what follows, and of the premises
itself, does not border on genius; it stakes the term out and marks
it as posted.  

So how good is WICKED CITY? As I was reading, I experienced the
high that readers seek, that of total immersion, where your
immediate reality is limited to what is between the covers of the
book at any given moment. There were also times when I thought I
was going to jump out of my skin. And right to the end, Atkins
lobs subtle surprises at the reader, never letting up for a moment.
You will read and re-read it, copy passages from it, jealously
guard it, and run back into a burning building just to rescue your
copy.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 24, 2011

Wicked City
by Ace Atkins

  • Publication Date: April 10, 2008
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Putnam Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0399154574
  • ISBN-13: 9780399154577