“The most dangerous man in America.” That was how J. Edgar Hoover once described George Kelly Barnes, aka “Machine Gun” Kelly. Better, however, to end that quote with a question mark, because Kelly, in fact, never shot anybody. But in 1933, Kelly (a bootlegger, then bank-robber) and his wife Kathryn were indeed wanted by every G-man in the country after the couple kidnapped an Oklahoma oil man and got away with $200,000 in ransom money.
The hunt for Kelly, who grew up in Memphis, and the capture of Kelly, who was nabbed in Memphis, may be a matter of American manhunt history.
But it’s the stuff of great storytelling in the hands of author Ace Atkins, whose latest novelization of a true-crime story, Infamous (Putnam), follows Kelly and Kathryn and the events leading up to and after the Oklahoma kidnapping. That’s 56 days the couple spent on the road fleeing the law and 20,000 miles traveled — Kelly providing the brawn; Kathryn, from Saltillo, Mississippi, providing the brains (and the good looks and the smart mouth and a craving for notoriety). She was, Atkins told the Flyer, a novelist’s dream: “I’ll never have a character I enjoyed writing as much as I did Kathryn Kelly.” And as for her big lug, George:
“I don’t think Kelly was a weak person,” Atkins said. “I don’t think he was a stupid person. But he was not a bloodthirsty criminal. I think Kelly would have been fine just being a bootlegger. But he really is one of the great Memphis characters: an average, good-time, wealthy frat boy who went to Central High.” Who went on to make it onto every front page in America before landing in Alcatraz — and inside the pages of Infamous. — Leonard Gill