Let's face it. Timothy Egan could probably write a three-volume history of marshmallows and it would be a gripping thrill ride.

His "Fever in the Heartland" is not about puffy sweets, fortunately. But it is riveting, with a subject who's a gift to anyone hoping to make history come alive for readers: a leader who was not only a Ku Klux Klan kingpin but also a sexual deviate, public drunk, family deserter, white supremacist, serial abuser and, possibly, a cannibal.

He's D.C. Stephenson and he's vile in such compelling and varied ways that it's hard to believe Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro didn't make an Oscar-winning movie about him in the 1970s.

The Texas native rose to prominence when he left his first family to move to Indianapolis, where his Grand Dragon-ship established the 97 % white Hoosier state as the one with the highest per capita Klan membership. In a few years in the 1920s, he also acquired a yacht, forgot about a child, bought off numerous statewide officials, plotted a presidential run and almost got away with murder.

It's easy to imagine "A Fever in the Heartland" as an Erik Larson-style popular history, following two threads that eventually intertwine. Stephenson would be one thread and the other would be Madge Oberholtzer, who is referred to in the book's subtitle, "The Ku Klux Klan's Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them."

If "Heartland" has a flaw, it's that the subtitle exaggerates the agency of Oberholtzer. But Egan's book doesn't overstate her role the way, say, Larson's "Thunderstruck" overstated the link between Guglielmo Marconi and murderer Hawley Crippen. Egan lets the characters emerge organically — we don't even meet Oberholtzer until "Fever" is half over — and his book, part rise-and-fall story and part courtroom drama, is stronger for it.

Egan, whose other histories include "The Worst Hard Time" (Dust Bowl) and "The Big Burn" (devastating forest fire), is a brilliant researcher and lucid writer. He packs "Fever" with details. Some are revelatory, such as that the KKK loved Prohibition, campaigning for it and officially considering booze un-American, despite Stephenson's public binges. And some are incidental, such as Walgreen's soaring through the 1920s by becoming de facto liquor stores, which "prescribed" hooch. Or that female Klan members were given cones to place under their hoods, so their hairdos wouldn't get wrecked.

"Fever" is particularly sharp on how Stephenson recognized that the way to succeed in Indiana and elsewhere was to draw churches to the KKK's side, through messaging and direct payoffs. Indiana Christians were willing to overlook the worst of the Klan even though, as Egan wryly notes, "instead of love thy neighbor, these Klansmen hated many a neighbor."

Egan is also great at depicting the context of the KKK's rise, with phenomena such as the Harlem Renaissance and the popularity of Jewish songwriters on Tin Pan Alley threatening bigots and with Stephenson unpunished for repeatedly injuring women because they probably "had it coming."

The author treads lightly on parallels between 1920s Indiana and our present day. But in the closing chapters, it's clear that one reason Egan wrote this book is because the appalling KKK rhetoric sounds so much like what we hear on news channels and in Congress right now.

Chris Hewitt is a Star Tribune critic and features writer.

A Fever in the Heartland

By: Timothy Egan.

Publisher: Viking, 432 pages, $30.