Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Public Enemies - Book Review

Never saw the movie that was based on this book (also called Public Enemies) because of the mixed reviews that I heard.  Browsing in a bookstore one day, I ran across the book.  After reading the back copy and realizing that it was a non-fiction account of “America’s Greatest Crime Wave,” I decided to pick it up.

I started reading it that same day and did not put down the 500+ page tome until I read the last word.  This book is up there with the best of the fictionalized non-fiction genre (In Cold Blood, The Devil In The White City, etc.) and is fascinating from the first page. Reading the lurid tales of Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, and many other gangsters through this turbulent two year period is an unexpectedly gratifying journey through history.

All of these gangsters rose to prominence in the same two year time period. It was the best of times for those outside the law. They had more money, guns, and better cars than most of the police. When this started to change with the creation of the FBI, and Hoover’s persistent expansion of its powers, the battle between the good boys and the bad was quickly reaching a crescendo in the early 1930’s.  Burrough’s thoroughly recounts the details of the gangsters’ lives, taking what most have been truckloads of research and condensing it into palatable chunks of information. 

As great as the book is, it does have one flaw in particular. It would have been nice to include more personal information about the FBI, especially Hoover. Both Melvin Purvis and Hoover get a perfunctory once-over compared to the gangsters, but the rest of the FBI agents hardly get a mention.  I was especially disappointed not to learn more about the rumors about Hoover’s personal life, which barely warrants one line in this book.

All in all, this is a must read for anyone remotely interested in this time period, the creation of the FBI, or 30’s era gangsters.  In addition to it being a good history lesson and a great book, it also offers insight into the phenomenon of the criminally famous and the blurred lines between the “good” folks and bad.  Dillinger’s portrayal was especially interesting and sheds light on the why he did what he did rather than simply recounting his deeds.  Reading about the ordinary men who entered a life of crime during tough economic times reminds us how close all of us are to desperation and wrongdoing unless we are grounded in something more substantial than financial comfort. Recommended.

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