Peopled with criminals who have more attitude than aptitude and laconic lawmen who never lose their cool, peppered with mordant tough-guy dialogue, Ace Atkins' new novel, Infamous, may remind you of an Elmore Leonard book.
But Atkins' high-octane tale of Depression-era G-men, bank robbers and gun molls is based on a true story. In 1933, a crew of small-time gangsters led by an ex-con named George Kelly kidnapped Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel while he was playing bridge on his patio.
As the first kidnapping for ransom after the law was changed to make that a federal crime in the wake of the Lindbergh case, the caper became a national sensation. So did its ringleader: "Machine Gun" Kelly. For two months, as he and his partners in crime zigzagged all over the U.S. map pursued by FBI agents, the whole country watched.
Atkins, formerly a reporter for the Tampa Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, does a bang-up job of bringing the crime and the era to life. His last three novels have been based on real crimes (starting with White Shadow, about the unsolved 1955 murder of Tampa nabob-turned-crime boss Charlie Wall), and like those books, Infamous began with research.
In this case, that meant absorbing an FBI file of more than 8,000 pages, and much more. But Atkins has a gift for turning history into riveting fiction — Infamous is a rollicking, suspenseful crime story.
Atkins' choice to write this book as fiction instead of nonfiction means that we get inside the heads of its vivid characters. Despite his moniker, George "Machine Gun" Kelly was usually an amiable guy. Born into a middle-class family in Memphis, Kelly didn't come from poverty like some Depression-era crooks but wandered into bootlegging and bank robbing after flunking out of college.
As Atkins paints him, Kelly is a man who loves to party and reckons sticking up small-town banks is the easiest way to finance his lifestyle. The force that kicks him up into the headlines is his wife, Kathryn "Kit" Kelly, a long-legged Lady Macbeth with a Texas twang and a fondness for furs, fast cars and fame.
Her dreams drawn from gangster movies and in-the-money films like Gold Diggers of 1933, Kathryn pouts when rival crooks like "Pretty Boy" Floyd make the papers. While George is in the process of holding up a nightclub owner, Kathryn coaches him — "Meet their eyes next time. Let them know you're the heavy in this picture." — and urges him to use the weapon he got his nickname from. George knows his girl:
" 'Open the trunk, sweetheart,' George said. 'And give me your coat.'
'To hide the big gun.'
'Oh, God,' she said, smiling. Knees weak and face flushed. 'Oh, George.' "
The Kellys' main adversary is a middle-aged FBI agent named Gus "Buster" Jones. (Was there a law in the '30s requiring everyone to have a nickname?) A former Texas Ranger and Customs agent, he has faced down imposing desperadoes like Pancho Villa and is determined not to let Kelly and his gang get away — especially a pair of gunmen named Harvey Bailey and Verne Miller, who killed five men right in front of Jones while trying to free one of their colleagues, just weeks before the kidnapping.
Atkins gives us a detailed and impressive look at crime solving in the days before computers and CSI units. Searching three whole states (one of them Texas) for the hideout where the Kellys stashed Urschel until the ransom was paid and they freed him several hours' drive away, Jones focuses on a single clue. Blindfolded and bound, Urschel marked the passage of time by the sound of an airplane passing overhead twice a day — except that one day, it didn't fly over the second time. Jones tracks down every flight on that day to find out which ones were canceled — and uses their routes to zero in on the remote farm where the victim had been held.
Atkins grounds Infamous in plentiful period detail and drops in a few apocryphal meetings between his characters and other later-famous names, like Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and a black blues guitarist called RL who might have sold his soul to the devil.
The book has many reminders of the public's response to flashy criminals like the Kellys in the depths of the Depression: They became celebrities, their extravagant spending and slick wardrobes breathlessly detailed in the press along with their crimes. (When Urschel is kidnapped, reporters camp on his lawn in Army tents and string telephone lines from poles nearby to file stories.)
But by taking us inside the Kellys' world, Atkins also reminds us that most criminals are not exactly masterminds. This is a gang that only occasionally shoots straight. Kathryn may be the book's most formidable character on the wrong side of the law, but even she is outwitted by an 11-year-old girl — albeit an 11-year-old who smokes Luckys, drinks Pabst and was raised by con artists.
But by the end, everyone knows Kathryn's name. Talking to her best friend during yet another road trip about movies and magazines, she asks, "What's better than being famous?"
Her friend's reply: "Jean Harlow is famous. . . . Kit Kelly is infamous."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.