Book review: Ronnie Earle, Gangbuster – Arts
Here’s a true crime story that’s every bit as compelling as your favorite pulpy, fictional counterpart. Set here in Austin, mostly in the 1970s, it was a time when our beautiful city was still largely a backwater, far less enlightened in terms of the criminal justice system, and rampant in official corruption. The thriving music scene was still a closely guarded secret to the outside world.
It’s a story ripe for writer/musician Jesse Sublett, whose portfolio includes a steamy trio that features bassist/PI Martin Fender, a harrowing murder mystery/memoir and, most recently, another saga of true crime, Austin Gangsters of the 1960s: The organized crime that shook the capital. This new book, featuring adjacent timelines and compatible storylines, could easily be considered a companion volume. It’s a tale filled with real heroes, repulsive villains, and a host of secondary characters that any self-respecting crime novelist would be proud to have brought to the page. Ultimately, Sublett points out, it’s a story of good versus evil.
The antagonist here is physically imposing sociopathic ex-felon Frank Smith, a millionaire scrap metal dealer and bail bondsman with deep ties to the network of good old boys within the Travis County court system. He eventually bumps into newly elected district attorney Ronnie Earle, a breath of fresh air whose status as an outsider, acceptance of the social changes forged throughout the 1960s, and openness to justice penal run counter to the previous status quo. Caught in the middle are Ike and Jane Rabb, honest, hardworking people whose family dumping business becomes the obsessive target of harassment, arson, and attempted murder by Smith and his accomplices.
Sublett deserves kudos for fleshing out and humanizing this fascinating cast of memorable characters, most notably Smith himself, whose charming swagger and affable personality are merely camouflage for his dark, caustic impulses. The author gives us a good sense of a pre-ATX Austin, from descriptions of businesses long ago shut down and eating establishments to the surprisingly cozy and downright corrupt relationship Smith had with courthouse officials. . It makes a point of highlighting the truly progressive, transformative and nationally recognized accomplishments of Ronnie Earle during his more than 30 years as a Travis County District Attorney. real time for American statesman. For his part, Sublett constructs the story with a sharp eye and a badass flair. This stuff is his bread and butter, and although hampered in his research by the pandemic lockdown, he was still able to give us a gripping account of this true Austin crime saga.
Last Gangster in Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earle and the End of a Junkyard Mafia by Jesse Sublett, University of Texas Press, 224 pp., $21.95 (paper)