George V. Reilly

Review: Public Enemies

Public Enemies
Title: Public Enemies
Author: Bryan Burrough
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2004
Pages: 592
Keywords: history
Reading period: 7–20 November, 2009

For two tumultuous years of the Depression, 1933 and 1934, the first war on crime caught the American imag­i­na­tion. John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barkers robbed banks and killed people, mostly across the Midwest. The war on crime also caused the FBI to rise from obscurity.

The movie of the book con­cen­trat­ed on Dillinger and Melvin Purvis of the FBI. The book itself tells a broader, more nuanced story, skipping between its subjects in chrono­log­i­cal order.

Hoover’s FBI comes off badly. Staffed mostly by clean-cut college boys with no law en­force­ment experience, they regularly miss clues, fail to ask the right questions, lose evidence, fight with other agencies, and generally exhibit in­com­pe­tence. By the end of the book, though, they have started to learn some lessons. Ironically, much of the material in the book is drawn from de­clas­si­fied FBI records.

That’s not to say that the crooks come off well either. They’re robbers and killers, generally stupid and often unpleasant. Baby Face Nelson is an out-and-out psy­chopath; Bonnie and Clyde are nasty children, way out of their depth. Only Dillinger and Alvin Karpis of the Barker gang have any smarts or charms.

An in­ter­est­ing history, told well.

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