In his compulsively readable latest, Atkins (Devil’s Garden, 2009, etc.) takes a revisionist look at the life and times of Machine Gun Kelly and the very bad woman who stood behind him.
“Poor George Kelly,” commiserates the author in a sort of preamble to his novel. Overshadowed by such Depression-era icons of iniquity as John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, he’s been consigned to the dustbins of gangster history. But the truth is Kelly never had much gangster in him. Yes, he liked the ill-gotten gains part, the loot that could be lavished on fast cars and flashy women. What he lacked was the ambition and, for that matter, the meanness required for world-class wickedness. His beautiful wife had that in spades. Kelly’s “one big score,” for instance, was conceived, planned and, to all intents and purposes, carried through by the iron-willed Kit Kelly. To George, the kidnapping of oil magnate Charles Urschel was the kind of caper he relished reading about in the true-crime magazines while knowing in his timorous heart of hearts that he lacked the capability. To Kit, though, whose thirst for headline ink was unquenchable, snatching a multimillionaire was merely the means to a destined end. “Jean Harlow is famous,” an admiring friend tells her. “Kit Kelly is infamous.” Sweet music, but there are active anti-choristers. Among them, count a pair of stone killers quick to consider $200,000 worth of ransom money—a mighty large ticket in those hardscrabble days—as targets of opportunity. Bullets fly, gore puddles and, as the denouement approaches, oh how those pages turn.
Atkins, who loves his characters colorful, makes readers love them too, and it doesn’t much matter whether they’re naughty or nice.