A riveting story about how the triumph of evil is forestalled when good men…do something.
Phenix City, Ala., is a real place. In 1955 Look magazine called it “the Wickedest City in America.” Atkins, who begins his novel a year earlier, based it on a real case that transformed the town. While sin, in all its familiar variations, had become endemic in Phenix City, one homicide too many was about to change the status quo. Albert Patterson, elected Alabama’s attorney general on the promise of clean-up, was gunned down in a Phenix City alley. For a variety of reasons, some obvious, some intangible, the formula that had been unfailingly successful in eradicating reform falls short this time and the Patterson killing has the effect of energizing a smoldering but hitherto silent majority. John Patterson, for instance, has never seen himself as the stuff of heroes, but now his father’s martyrdom strips him of choice. “ ‘I’m taking my father’s place,’ ” he grimly tells his friend Lamar Murphy, and by doing so becomes a source of strength for Murphy—a family man and small-business owner—and those like him, those to whom their stew of a town has made self-respect increasingly difficult. That opposition to Phenix City’s mafia is dangerous is a given. Albert’s murder was hardly a surprise, but little by little, confirmed in the belief that Edmund Burke had it right about the triumph of evil, citizens do what they must to take their town back. And as Murphy says to a young man whose small act of bravery will strike a telling blow: “ ‘Feels good, doesn’t it?’ ”
Atkins (White Shadow, 2006, etc.) is clearly in love with his colorful characters—on both sides of the moral divide—and makes them wonderfully believable.