Thursday, May 06, 2010

Book: Infamous, by Ace Atkins (2010)

Back in January, I raved about Devil’s Garden by Ace Atkins. Since then, I’ve devoured the Busted Flush Press reissue of his debut Crossroad Blues. Infamous is my third Atkins book of the year – and 2010 ain’t half over yet.

Ex-bootlegger and small-time bank robber George Kelly never wanted to be known as ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly. In 1933, largely at the urging of his wife Kathryn, he kidnapped Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel for what was then the largest ransom in U.S. history. Infamous recounts the crime and its aftermath as the Kellys go on the lam, pursued by federal agents led by former Texas Ranger Gus T. Jones and some of George’s old running buddies eager for a cut of the score.

Atkins effortlessly evokes the exhausted spirit of the Depression with telling details. Too often when I read historical fiction I’m reminded of a scene in The Simpsons sending up Alec Baldwin’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross, when a self-help guru boasts, “You see this watch? It’s jammed with so many jewels the hands can’t move.” Authors are so determined to pack in as much of their research as possible that the story never takes off.

Not Atkins. He sets the scene beautifully, then steps back and gives his rich cast of characters run of the joint. Jones, trying to blend his old school approach to law enforcement with J. Edgar Hoover’s new methods. Kelly, a basically good-natured big ape beleaguered by his reputation. And above all Kathryn, the movie-besotted Lady Macbeth desperate to escape her hardscrabble upbringing. (“You could be anyone in a movie house and dream as big as you wanted without feeling like a sap.”) Other famous faces pop up en route, including one that’s a lovely nod to Crossroad Blues.

Late in the action a character asks, “What’s the matter with some company in this coldhearted world?” You’ll find no better no company than Infamous, the best novel I’ve read so far this year.

Here’s the highest compliment I can pay it: only every other time I picked up the book did I hear the title the way the Three Amigos say it.