"Wicked City" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 336 pages, $24.95), by Ace Atkins: The Atkins family's criminal history was a source of shame, something spoken of in whispers after the children fell asleep. But for Ace Atkins, crime reporter turned mystery novelist, it's "a point of pride."
His fraternal grandfather was a bootlegger in the 1950s, and his maternal grandfather was a bagman who shuttled favors and satchels of cash between Gov. "Big Jim" Folsom and the wide-open town of Phenix City, Ala.
Atkins drew on them both to create the composite character of Ruben Stokes, one of the bad guys in his new novel, "Wicked City."
This is the sixth crime novel by the former Tampa Tribune reporter. The first four, chronicling the adventures of an amateur sleuth named Nick Travers, were pretty good. But "White Shadow" (2006), based on a real 1950s gangland killing that Atkins carefully researched, was a revelation. Superbly written in a voice that ranged from gritty to lyrical, it was at once a terrific crime story and a first-rate historical novel.
"Wicked City," also based on a real-life 1950s murder, is every bit as good. For this book, too, Atkins did extensive research, amassing documents and press clippings and doing interviews with surviving witnesses. Atkins changed a few details for the sake of the narrative, but all the key events and most of the characters are real.
There's Albert Fuller, the bullying, six-gun toting assistant sheriff who gets a cut of all the rackets in Phenix City. There's Arch Ferrell, the hard-drinking, womanizing district attorney who never bothers to prosecute a single murder case. There's Albert Patterson, a lawyer who takes on the rackets and gets murdered for his trouble. And there's Lamar Murphy, a soft-spoken Texaco filling station owner who courageously leads a citizen's revolt against the mob.
The novel transports the reader to the Phenix City of a half-century ago - a rat's nest of brothels, gambling dens, clip joints, drugs dealers, moonshine whiskey, rigged elections, intimidation and murder.
"The first light on the river washed over the crime scene and over the tired faces of the men standing in that narrow shot of alley taking pictures and measuring Mr. Patterson's last steps and answering newsmen's questions and talking and talking. I hadn't been home since the hospital, and I waited with Hugh Britton outside the ropes they'd set off to keep the gawkers back. John Patterson was there, talking to investigators who'd come down from Montgomery, and we were left with little to do in that early gray light but stand back and drink coffee and shake our heads."
Crime stories that double as historical novels are something of a sub-genre in the mystery field. Often, they don't work very well. Some suffer from shoddy historical research and others are more history than mystery. But occasionally, as with Loren D. Estleman's "motor city" series that chronicles the criminal history of Detroit, they work wonderfully.