A fictionalized account of the author’s parents’ lives in Kansas City, Missouri, criminal underworld of the 1960s.
After growing up in foster care, author Reynolds (Brush Creek Charlie, 2015, etc.) discovered that his biological parents were career criminals. This startling revelation inspired him to dive into their history, resulting in this unusual book, which aims for James Ellroy–esque true-crime heights but ultimately settles for overheated pulp. According to this account, Reynolds’ parents, Gordon McCoyd “Mack” Reynolds, who was white, and Alla Mae Briggs, who was African-American, met when she was plying her trade as a street prostitute. Combining their talents, they went into business running a “bawdy house” in Kansas City’s red-light district: “I’m a good judge of character,” Mack tells Alla in this text. “My heart, my mind, my soul, my spirit—they tell me that I can trust you.” Kansas City was a key moneymaker for the Chicago Mafia, and Reynolds deftly captures the city’s colorful characters and their smoke-filled haunts: William “Willie the Rat” Cammisano reputedly “had stolen everything, from the wheels of a truck to the rings off a woman’s fingers,” the author writes, and even when “Godfather of the Black Mafia” James “Doc” Dearborn smiled, “it appeared as though he was still very angry about something.” Reynolds says he had access to extensive police records, but rather than take a reportorial approach, he embellishes the narrative with invented, often stilted dialogue: “We’ve been with Mack for quite some time,” one woman says as she’s being tortured. Reynolds portrays his main characters, an interracial couple, as crossing racial lines, but the fact that they encounter brutal racists nearly everywhere they go strains credulity. He gives credit to Mack for showing “compassion for the coloreds,” as Mack puts it, but the character’s fundamental, and extremely unsympathetic, personality trait is to express sadistic fury at almost every turn. There are scenes of violence that would make Quentin Tarantino blanch and also explicit sex scenes, as when a prostitute and her client are transported to “an orgasmic fairyland.”
An unevenly executed novel but one that brings its smoke-filled milieu to life.