If you think the 1950s was all Ozzie and Harriet, crack open a copy of Wicked City.
Ace Atkins is in the Tampa Bay area this week for several signings of his sixth novel, the gritty, sometimes gruesome story of an Alabama town called Phenix City.
It's a real place, one that Look magazine in 1955 called "the wickedest city in America." It earned that dubious distinction in the 1940s and '50s as a Southern Sin City, a wide-open, full-service, 24-hour buffet of prostitution, gambling, drugs and just about every other vice you can imagine (and maybe some you can't).
Behaving badly in Phenix City was practically a rite of passage for soldiers from nearby Fort Benning, Ga., but the town's clientele came from all over the nation. And where were Phenix City's cops when all this was going on? Collecting bribes, running brothels and moonlighting as hired thugs.
Phenix City sounds like the Wild West, and that's just how Atkins writes about it.
A former reporter for the St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune, Atkins brings his reporting skills to his fiction, conducting extensive interviews and research to base his stories on.
His last novel, White Shadow, was based on the unsolved 1955 murder of Tampa mobster Charlie Wall and did a splendid job of evoking 1950s Florida.
For Wicked City, Atkins returns to his Alabama roots. He grew up just 20 miles from Phenix City amid stories of its sinister reputation.
When he began to research it in earnest, Atkins found more family connections than he expected: One of his grandfathers was a bootlegger who did business there, and the other was a go-between for notoriously corrupt Alabama Gov. James "Big Jim" Folsom, who is a character in the novel.
Those family ties don't seem to have caused Atkins to pull any punches. Wicked City is a thrilling dark ride into the sleaze and brutality of a town in the grip of corruption and crime.
Good and evil
While White Shadow was a hard-boiled crime story, Wicked City reads more like a Western, albeit with Rocket 88s instead of saddle ponies. Its chief white-hat good guy is Lamar Murphy, a former prizefighter who is one of the few citizens of Phenix City to try to stand up to the bad guys.
The novel begins with the brazen murder of Albert Patterson, another of the handful of good guys in town. Patterson has just won the state's Democratic primary for attorney general — which in those Dixiecrat days meant he was as good as elected — when he is gunned down outside his office.
The killing takes place in an alley just off Phenix City's main drag on a Friday night, when the place is jamming. Yet no one seems to have seen who fired the shots.
Before the blood is dry on the pavement, the local law is circling the wagons, fending off investigators from the state. They would prefer to take care of their own business — especially since Patterson's promises to clean up Phenix City were likely what got him killed.
Murphy is drawn into the case by John Patterson, Albert's son. Murphy is not a lawman, just a doting husband and father who works in a service station, a quiet, self-deprecating guy with a steady moral compass and a steel backbone. If they'd made a movie about Phenix City in 1955, Gary Cooper would have played him. (Atkins interviewed Murphy and John Patterson, who, like many of the characters in Wicked City, are real people.)
Murphy and a few allies go up against a whole lot of bad guys. One of the worst is Chief Deputy Bert Fuller. He's up to his hat brim in the town's illicit industries; among his business practices is tattooing ID numbers inside the lower lips of prostitutes, as if they were cattle, so they can be tracked down if they try to flee.
The clash between good guys and bad soon escalates into full battle as martial law is declared in Phenix City. Atkins brings a large, intriguing cast of characters to life, and, as he did in White Shadow, he convincingly evokes the '50s with setting and pop culture details, from a Hank Williams soundtrack to a $2 tankful of gas. He also does a masterful job of building tension, right down to the final shootout.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.