It's 1954, and in Phenix City, Alabama, everything's for sale. Main Street is full of illegal casinos and strip clubs, and for customers who want more than a pole dance, there's always room for negotiation, especially since Sheriff Burt Fuller has a habit of picking up underage girls and farming them out to the local prostitution ring. A small handful of people fight a losing battle against the sleaze, led by Albert Patterson, whose candidacy for state's Attorney General has the crime bosses on edge. When Albert is gunned down one night, it's the last straw; while his son John moves to take his place at the capital, ex-boxer and all-around stand-up guy Lamar Murphy works with the National Guard to clean up a mess that will go to any length to protect itself.
Wicked City moves between Lamar's first-person narration and a third-person perspective that follows the various undercurrents of Phenix nightlife, from a corrupt D.A. to some mid-level thugs to a young couple's struggle to save each other in the face of seemingly limitless corruption and greed. Phenix City is a real place, and in an introductory note, crime writer Ace Atkins explains that though he's made some changes, "Many of the large events in this novel are true." Some of Atkins' attempts to inject period-specific trappings into his setting are heavy-handed, but even during the story's melodramatic heights, he maintains a level of realism that keeps the story from edging into camp.
City explores familiar territory; Atkins doesn't have Jim Thompson's grasp of psychology or Dashiell Hammett's sharp prose, but there's a melancholic romance in his depiction of the wasted lives of Phenix. The problem is, none of those lives stick around for long, and not just because of the novel's body count. City has a number of plot threads to keep track of, and nearly all of them get short shrift, which makes for some frustrating reading. Whenever a scene builds up a good head of steam, Atkins shifts elsewhere, and an indeterminate amount of time gets lost with each shift. It's like watching the final montage of The Wire without ever getting to see the rest of the show; there are lovely moments, but without any buildup or background, there's no real reason to care.