Book Review: 1960s Austin Gangsters
The noir novelist digs into the capital city's criminal past and unearths characters who are lively, colorful, and interesting
Reviewed by Tim Stegall, Fri., Oct. 2, 2015
Gangsters?! In Austin?! Really?! Believe it or not ....
There was a time – the 1960s, to be precise – when ex-UT football hero Tim Overton, his crony Jerry Ray "Fat Jerry" James, and their white-trash buddies could band together to commit crimes ranging from petty to serious. Prostitution, smuggling, safecracking, gambling, drugs – you name it, all run out of a transmission shop in what would eventually be the original location of Emo's on Sixth Street. It was the days of the loose alliance known as the "Dixie Mafia," which had outposts in Dallas, Ft. Worth, New Orleans, Biloxi, Oklahoma, and Florida. The local branch was a cadre of what author Jesse Sublett describes as "Cadillac-obsessed hoodlums" with "Elvis hair," pinky rings, and sharp suits, consorting with strippers and call girls.
Welcome to the wildest local true-crime tale told, from the pen of an ex-punk rock bassist with a penchant for films noirs and hard-boiled fiction.
Slim as the volume is, Sublett's pulled off a remarkable piece of scholarship. The pages are packed with detail. He uncovers specifics behind several of the small-town bank heists the Overton/James gang pulled across Texas, the mid-South, and the Midwest. He writes of the meticulous planning and the network of used car salesmen and crooked lawyers aiding and abetting. He tracks tentacles weaving through the local blues scene and even to the Kennedy assassination, leaving room for cameo appearances from Charles Whitman, the 13th Floor Elevators, and even 20-year-old Elvis Presley. Then he will drop a slice of pure noir poetry in your lap. Like: "Standing in the middle of the road next to the First State Bank of Mobeetie, with no fear of being hit by a passing vehicle, looking out at the knife-edge horizon, I kept thinking: Out there is a whole lot of nowhere to run."
Read a line like that, and it makes you think that Sublett should be hailed as an Ellroy-level master of modern crime writing.
1960s Austin Gangsters sinks its hooks in you and does not let go. It reads like a well-paced, densely plotted novel. It's local history that frequently gets overlooked. It uncovers a set of characters who, for all their evil and malice, were nevertheless colorful, lively, and interesting. It's an Austin weirder than any municipal marketing slogan and likely embarrassing to the Chamber of Commerce. In other words: It's fun!
1960s Austin Gangstersby Jesse Sublett
The History Press, 176 pp., $19.99