Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Hard Road to Justice: Wicked City by Ace Atkins

Wicked City
by Ace Atkins

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

A sleazy hive of bootlegging, illegal gambling halls, houses of prostitution, political corruption, and dirty cops who turned a blind eye, Look magazine called Phenix City, Alabama the "wickedest city in America." The town's innocent citizens were too afraid to challenge the status quo until 1954, when the Democratic candidate for attorney general, a reformer named Albert Patterson was gunned down in an alley by persons unknown.

Patterson's death marked the beginning of the end for that status quo. It was too egregious, too much of a finger in the eye to ignore, and it was undeniable proof that the good could not live alongside the wicked in Phenix City and do nothing.

Though Atkins's account is fictionalized, the major events are true and many of the principal characters are real. In a short note that prefaces the novel, Atkins writes, "No author could ever exaggerate the sin, sleaze, and moral decay of Phenix City, Alabama, in the fifties or the courage of the people who stood up to fight it."

It's good that he says it, because the extent of the vice that Atkins is about to describe boggles the mind with its sheer audacity. Young women and girls picked up for loitering are taken to prison, where the inside of their lower lip is tattooed, and their names are taken down for the Sheriff's records -- he gets a cut of their future profits when they're conscripted into prostitution. Madams, law enforcement, club owners, and elected officials form a twisted alliance of civic leadership, and everyone gets a cut.

Powerful and harrowing, Wicked City is not without flaws. Characterization emerges slowly, and it's difficult to distinguish many figures from one another, particularly the corrupt officials. Atkins also makes a narrative choice that I didn't care for, interspersing limited omniscient points of view with the first person narration of Lamar Murphy, a former boxer and filling station owner who becomes Phenix City's interim sheriff. Sometimes these changes in perspective occur within the same chapter, which is distracting and clumsy-feeling. However, these quibbles become less important, charging towards Phenix City's inevitable, yet satisfying purge of evil and vice.

Atkins's website features some excellent orientation to the real Phenix City of the 1950s, including newsreel footage of some of the key figures and images of its greatest villains and heroes.

If you liked...: Hell At the Breech by Tom Franklin, this book is for you.

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