Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies is an attention grabber. Far more so, in fact, than the Michael Mann movie it inspired.
The first thing that struck me were the names. In the handy chart up front is a family tree of sorts of the men and women who were the star players of what is known as the public enemy era in America. Here we meet people called Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Jelly Nash, Shotgun George Zeigler – names so ridiculously evocative of Hollywood crime capers of a certain vintage that it’s hard to think of them as real people. Even the FBI agents who hunted them down have names like Pop Nathan and Buster Jones. Can you imagine getting busted by a Special Agent Pop?
It prompts Burrough to write:
In a world of pocket telephones, internet shopping, and laser-guided missile bombs, the notion of marauding gangs of bank robbers wreaking havoc across the country is almost too outlandish to grasp, a story one might hear of the Wild West. But it wasn’t the Wild West. It was America in 1933, eight years before Pearl Harbor, twelve years before Hiroshima, twenty-three years before Elvis, thirty-six before Woodstock.
Long ago to be sure, but not that long ago at all.
The second thing that caught my attention was a little detail in the maps that showed the routes taken across America by the six major gangs profiled in this book – in the timelines were little boxes marked “vacation”. I don’t know why it tickled my funny bone to think of gangsters on vacation but I nevertheless found myself grinning a bit at the thought of bank robbers and murderers taking a few days off from looting and shooting to chill by the pool in sunny Florida before going back to “work”.
This is the charm of Public Enemies. As emphatic as Burrough is in his foreword (“This book was not ‘imagined’… It was reported.”) about the provenance of the facts he presents, he nevertheless manages to write what can only be described as a hectic thriller set in an atmosphere strongly evocative of the period. It is the kind of story that underpins the sentiment “truth is stranger than fiction”.
Public Enemies is the tale of a country as well as a crime spree. In Depression-era America, the new administration under Franklin Delano Roosevelt is instituting major changes commensurate with the times. One of these new ideas is a Bureau of Investigation (the “Federal” part wouldn’t be added until later) under J. Edgar Hoover – a “short, fat, businesslike, [man who] walks with mincing step“. Nobody really likes Hoover, an officious if efficient bureaucrat inclined towards despotism, and his team of clean-cut, well-dressed, educated, unarmed agents (sneeringly nicknamed “College Boys” by well-armed local law enforcement everywhere) are a joke.
But when a perfect storm of corrupt policemen, idiot crooks and loquacious FBI agents comes together in a shocking incident termed the Kansas City Massacre, not only does it sound the death-knell of the public enemy era, it proves to be a turning point in the history of the FBI and federal law. The War on Crime has begun.
I’m saying it long after the fact, but you can see the cinematic potential of this story in the photographs that accompany the book. There’s a very un-Faye Dunaway-ish Bonnie Parker mugging for the camera in happier and more criminal times; there she is again, very definitely dead, a thin sheet carelessly thrown over her dead body (after her death, the men guarding her corpse allowed members of the public to cut off bits of her hair and clothing as souvenirs). There’s a cocky John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, who played him in the 2009 movie, looks nothing like him – in fact, Depp resembles an FBI agent by the name of Earl Conelly going by the photos) leaning against his prosecutor in a nonchalant pose that apparently drove J. Edgar Hoover mad with fury; there he is again, blood trickling down his cheek, looking more like a tired child fast asleep than a man shot dead.
The amount of death and the sheer variety of it is just as disturbing. As Tommy Carroll lies dying in an alley, for example, he has nothing to say to the law but asks the man who shot him to give the few hundred dollars on his person to his girlfriend: “Be sure the little girl gets it. She doesn’t know what it’s all about.”
At the other end of the scale is the almost farcical inefficiency of the FBI. They tell chance-met reporters their hush-hush plans, they drive right past the man they’re supposed to be hunting even though he is in front of his house, they write polite letters of inquiry for important and timely information they could have had in a telephone call, they arrest the wrong people, they routinely forget to keep an eye on the girlfriends and wives of the men they’re tracking even though they’re the only leads they have. If Hoover really modeled the FBI on Scotland Yard, you wonder what the Yard ever did to give him such a low opinion of themselves.
Not that the gangs are any better. Their depiction in popular fiction to the contrary, most of the real criminals weren’t exactly mental giants. Some of the most entertaining bits of the book come as Burrough takes us through some of their routines. To give you just one example, the man who revolutionized bank robberies in America was the guy who wrote out and taped a getaway plan to the dashboard of his car. It apparently occurred to him that things might work out better for him if he knew what to do once he walked out of the bank rather than just screeching away on a burst of adrenaline. So you can guess what the others were like.
It reminded me of that speech George Clooney’s character gives in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight about the general stupidity of bank robbers. And no wonder really, because Hollywood did these guys a favor. Roger Ebert writes:
My friend Jay Robert Nash says 1930s gangsters copied their styles from the way Hollywood depicted them; screenwriters like Ben Hecht taught them how they spoke. Dillinger was a big movie fan; on the last night of his life, he went to see Clark Gable playing a man a lot like him.
But eventually, we arrive at a point when the gangs are still thinking like the good ol’ days when a robber could make a clean getaway in a stolen car with a new-fangled V8 engine while the local sheriff was cranking up his Model A, even as the FBI is learning from its mistakes. And their luck holds as they begin to capture and kill the public enemies one by one.
By the time Public Enemies and the War on Crime come to a close, America has changed forever. Your perception of that era and the stories it spawned will too.