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Ace Atkins chronicles Machine Gun Kelly's abduction of Oklahoma oil tycoon in 'Infamous'

Rod Lott May 13th, 2010

Ace Atkins 2-4 p.m. SundayFull Circle Bookstore1900 Northwest Expressway842-2900www.fullcirclebooks.comAce Atkins found the spark for his latest novel, "Infamous," buried within 8,000 pages of an FBI ...

Ace Atkins
2-4 p.m. Sunday
Full Circle Bookstore
1900 Northwest Expressway

Ace Atkins found the spark for his latest novel, "Infamous," buried within 8,000 pages of an FBI file. Granted, it was a good one, on one of the Depression era's most notorious gangsters, Machine Gun Kelly.

In July 1933, the criminal " aka George Kelly Barnes " kidnapped Charles Urschel from the Oklahoma City oilman's mansion on 327 N.W. 18th and asked for a six-figure ransom. Roughly two months later, Kelly was arrested " the first big case for J. Edgar Hoover's burgeoning FBI " and earned an extended stay at Alcatraz.

In summer 2008, Atkins was researching another story altogether in Memphis, Tenn., when a records clerk offhandedly mentioned having Machine Gun Kelly's file, and that it read "like something out of the movies." Atkins asked to see it, and agreed.

"I was just hooked," he said. "I put down the project I was working on and went full speed into writing about Kelly. The details of the case are so great for a novelist, it was like picking gold up off the ground."

The fictionalized result, "Infamous," was released April 15. On a wave of positive reviews, Atkins will make his first trip to the Sooner State, to sign copies from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at Full Circle Bookstore.

Kelly had run afoul of Oklahoma authorities even before the Urschel abduction, being arrested five years prior for smuggling booze onto an Indian reservation. It landed him a three-year prison sentence.

"You know Machine Gun Kelly. You grew up your entire life knowing that name. Poll anybody that you come into contact with daily, they're going to know that name," Atkins said. "But they may not know what he did. These guys were almost like something you'd see out of 'Batman.' Back then, guys like Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd " they were rock-star criminals."

In an unofficial series of narratives based upon actual crimes, from scandalized actor Fatty Arbuckle to Florida mob boss Charlie Wall, "Infamous" falls fourth on Atkins' bibliography.

"This is the most true story that I've ever written," he said, "mainly because the Machine Gun Kelly story " from the kidnapping "¦ all the way up to the point where he was arrested in Memphis " it was a compelling beginning, a middle and an end. There were not as many holes as I had to fill as a novelist."

And yet, it was the hardest of the quartet to write. But that's Atkins' own fault.

"I really over-research," he said. "Something like this particular case, it just kept going and going and going and going. There was always something new to follow. There was always another file. So I kept on opening door after door after door after door, and I could probably fill 10 volumes on the Kelly case. ... You gotta be kinda nuts to go through 8,000 pages."

The author estimates a third of "Infamous" takes place in Oklahoma, primarily at Urschel's residence and the Skirvin Hotel. Unable to visit Oklahoma during its writing, Atkins instead turned to a unique outlet to help him nail the period detail: eBay.

"I would find postcards and menus and tourist guides to the Skirvin Hotel from that period, so I was able to see what orchestra was playing, how the room was furnished, what the lobby looked like, and that kinda thing," he said. "I probably spent $1,000 on eBay collecting all these little trinkets."

Since last month's publication of the novel, Atkins has been on a seven-state tour, which has gone well, he said, except for one thing.

"I tell my wife, 'I keep waiting for good-looking groupies to show up, and not once on my tour does that ever happen,'" he said. "And my wife said, 'Maybe you shouldn't write books about the Great Depression.'" "Rod Lott

photo/Jay E. Nolan

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