Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties

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The newly published book, Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties, by Jim Spas, my one time brother in law, is worthy of a close look. Jim comes originally from New York State, but has lived in the west for most of his life. He has a strong sense of history and interconnections between things local and personal, like the development of a town or small city over time, the surrounding landscape, and broad historical events. To get a sense of this quality, have a look at Jim’s blog.

Junction City, Off the Record is a series of stories about a hard boiled private eye working between the wars in the town of Ogden, Utah. Ogden is famous for having been one of the most dangerous cities in the west during that period.

The main characters, including the detective, his significant other, his business partner, his urchins, his spirito-logical advisor, and some of the key bad guys, are engaged in each of a series of stories separated by years of time. This device allows Spas to depict a dynamic and dangerous, if also small and remote, Utah town (and yes there are some Mormons, but not too many) through the post World War I period right up to, but not quite including, the depression. But you see the depression about to happen, suggesting to me that Jim has a second book in mind.

I would like to see more differentiation in dialog, and for the author to leave the reader with a little more of the work constructing the story, but the unity in voice also provides an interesting effect, at least at the beginning of the novel, where the reader is struck fairly abruptly with a set of modern minds — the protagonist, two women, and the owner of a restaurant — almost speaking out of time as though a few friends traveled to an earlier era with woke sensibilities. That device in turn facilitates the main and most compelling feature of the book: Rich, historically accurate, and powerful detail. In fact, you can look up most of the names you encounter in this story in Wikipedia and find that they are real. (I can’t actually say most, I did not count, but it feels that way).

I don’t think there are many, if any, historical novels that are also hard boiled detective stories that have such detail, and I’m sure there are zero set in this particular time and place. Probably.

It is a good book and serves almost as a memoir of an amateur historian filtered through a fictional account of plausible but slightly out of time — in a good way — characters. Also, it isn’t expensive and you will sail through it.

By the way, “Junction City” is the nickname of Ogden, and the city motto is “Stll untamed.”

Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties by Jim Spas
Ogden, Utah in the Roaring ‘Twenties is a rowdy railroad town where houses of prostitution, gambling dens, and speakeasies operate in the open and violent crimes are often treated with indifference by the police. Across this decade of “Normalcy”, where contempt for the law, labor unrest, racism, and fast living define the age, private detective Jack Workman takes on some surprising clients and becomes embroiled in the conflicts that operate beneath the surface of his complex city.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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3 thoughts on “Junction City, Off the Record: Tales From Ogden, Utah’s Notorious Underworld in the Roaring ‘Twenties

  1. Sounds interesting, the description reminds me of Dashiell Hammett’s short story “Nightmare Town” (published in 1924 in Argosy All-Story Weekly) and his four-part serialized novel “The Cleansing of Poisonville.” The novel featured the nameless “Continental op” (an operative of the Continental Detective Agency ) and ws published in parts in Black Mask magazine from Nov. 1927 to Feb. 1928. (It was also altered and published in book form under the title “Red Harvest.”). Both the short story and the novel dealt with communities run under the control of criminal organizations to the point of making 1920s Chicago seem clean.

    1. Later addition:

      I bought the book in kindle’s format; That’s good because I’m running out of physical room for books. Greg L. says he believes the resemblance to Hammett’s stories that struck me was not an accident and that’s a good thing in my opinion. I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment from Hammett’s stories, especially those featuring the Continental op, all of which I’ve reread several times. Fortunately, I don’t have one of those memories where whatever I read is kept in memory, detailed memory, for decades.

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