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    Review of WICKED CITY by Ace Atkins (see his website)

    Putnam, April 2008

    For decades, Phenix City, Alabama, was the worst city in America. Young girls were enslaved into prostitution, gambling and moonshine went uncontrolled, and murder was cheap. Phenix City's Sheriff, local prosecuters and judges, and most of the other powers were deeply involved in crime and its payoffs. At the state level, the Governor and the party establishment are in debt to Phenix City's corrupt bosses--who don't are happy to bring busloads of whores in to vote on command--or to lose boxes of ballots as needed. When a local lawyer with an appetite for cleaning things up wins an election for State Attorney General, Phenix City's powers aren't about to stand by and let him close down their profitable operation. He's murdered before he can take office.

    Although the Phenix City movers and shakers have never been seriously challenged, there are those who resent their actions, and there are more who believe they need to put on an appearance of caring when a prominant lawyer is gunned down in the center of town. At first, the National Guard posted to control the 'wicked city' don't find anything and don't do much. But when they approach local gas station manager and former boxer Lamar Murphy to step in as sheriff, Lamar leads them to some of the open secrets everyone in town knew about--moonshine stills, pornography, and houses of prostitution. Even Lamar has no clue, however, how deep the corruption went, or that girls as young as twelve were forced into prostitution, serving out their short lives in locked barns, beaten, and murdered.

    Based on the true events in 1954, WICKED CITY is an intriguing window into the recent past, as well an impassioned plea that so-called 'victimless' crimes like prostitution can have horribly real victims.

    Author Ace Atkins (see more reviews of novels by Atkins) brings historical Phenix City, its culture of corruption, and the very real people who benefited from it and who fought it to life. Cleaning up corruption is far from costless and one of Atkins's more powerful moments comes when Murphy confronts a man who has lost his job in an illegal bar and whose children are now starving.

    Possibly because it's a fictionalized version of real events, WICKED CITY doesn't have the strong central character or driving personal involvement I like to see in a mystery. While Murphy receives threats, I never really believed him to be in danger--somewhat reducing my emotional investment in the story. Similarly, I would have liked to really understand what made Murphy different from all the others who simply let the corruption of their city continue. Atkins did a stronger job with Billy Stokes, son of an illegal bar manager who falls in love with a girl who's been forced into prostitution.

    Although Phenix City was real, and the events of this novel actually took place barely fifty years ago, I'd never heard of Phenix City, never knew that these events took place or that mobster-run towns weren't simply an artifact of prohibition but continued into recent times. WICKED CITY is a useful reminder of where we've been--and a warning of dangers we face.

    Three Stars

    Reviewed 7/23/08

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