Dirty Rats, Cultural Icons


America's Greatest Crime Wave

and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34

By Bryan Burrough

Penguin Press; 592 pp; $29.95

After an 80-mph "wild running gunfight" with police outside South St. Paul, Minn., in April, 1934, John Dillinger and two pals need a less-conspicuous getaway car. Using a pistol, one member of the gang flags down a passing family on a quiet side road. As he steals their Ford, Dillinger's partner apologizes to the driver, a power-company manager on his lunch break, enviously telling the man he is lucky to have a nice job and family. And, even as his other partner writhes in excruciating pain from a police bullet, the ever-polite Dillinger takes a minute to pat the couple's baby on the head. "Don't worry," says this son of an Indianapolis grocer. "We like kids."

Ah, the gentleman bandit. We meet a few in Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough's spellbinding new account of America's first War on Crime. There are also psychopaths, such as "Baby Face" Nelson, who cackles during robberies and whose cronies fear he might shoot them and take all the loot. And there are even would-be poets, such as the histrionic Bonnie Parker, who writes verse for her mother in between stickups at gas stations and banks on which she accompanies the murderous Clyde Barrow. Anticipating her death, the former waitress asks her widowed mom to bring her body home to West Texas to spend "a long, cool, peaceful night together before I leave you."

Some of the rich details are culled from dubious news accounts and books written years after the events. Others are from ostensibly more reliable FBI files and the recollections of descendants of those involved. Weaving them together, Texas-born Burrough, who made his reputation with Barbarians at the Gate, the 1990 account of the RJR Nabisco leveraged buyout, offers a rip-roaring, day-by-day account of a particularly lawless two-year period. While many Americans struggled with the privations of the Depression, the mugs, molls, and hangers-on of Burrough's account ranged through the Midwest, the California wine country, and Florida. There, they knocked over banks, kidnapped rich people, and -- for a remarkably long time -- eluded lawmen. "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Ma Barker, and "Machine Gun" Kelly all put in colorful appearances. Where the book falls down is in making sense of America's fascination with such social misfits.

Perhaps it has something to do with the way these gun-toting, wise-cracking gangsters made fools of J. Edgar Hoover and his rather green "G-men." The FBI, first created in 1908 to probe antitrust cases for the Justice Dept., was in the 1930s far from the crime-busting machine of lore. The band of college boys and "cowboys," which a Milwaukee newspaper once branded "comic opera cops," at first doesn't even have the right to carry guns. The villains, the author suggests, force the agency to grow up, in effect creating the modern FBI.

Such insights, though, are secondary to action, including close-up accounts of astonishing escapes. For sheer brazenness, little compares to Dillinger's Mar. 3, 1934, breakout from a jail in Crown Point, Ind. Armed with a wooden gun and helped by another inmate brandishing a toilet plunger, the gangster bluffs his way out. He stops his jail mate from hitting a 64-year-old janitor, remarking: "Contrary to what people say, I'm no killer." But the next month we see Dillinger's gang shoot its way out of a trap at a backwoods Wisconsin lodge, as ill-prepared FBI men close in. A civilian and an agent die -- two of many people to fall in Dillinger's spree.

Burrough also offers vivid reconstructions of bold daytime robberies. Gangsters, pumped up with adrenaline, rake bank interiors and nearby storefronts with tommy guns. They take hostages as they make carefully planned "gits" out of towns such as South Bend, Ind., and Sioux Falls, S.D. And we see them hole up with pals in Chicago apartments and in Midwest lakeshore cottages, at times having tearful meetings with relatives or mooning over girlfriends. The Ma Barker-Alvin Karpis gang drops in on resorts in Miami and Havana. All along, family and friends -- as well as corrupt lawyers, doctors, and cops on the take -- ease the way. Dillinger, his looks altered by plastic surgery, wanders freely in East Chicago, Ind., until a reward-hungry woman friend betrays him and the feds plug him outside a theater on July 22, 1934. Some 5,000 people come to see him buried in Indianapolis.

The action is nonstop -- and sometimes, the rat-a-tat pace can overwhelm a reader. But Public Enemies is thin on analysis. Why did these villains become celebrities? Why did they become villains in the first place? Aside from a few glib suggestions -- Depression-era resentment of banks, youthful prison experiences -- Burrough avoids such issues. Still his volume is a model of narrative journalism and an often gripping read. Short on the "why," Public Enemies does a bang-up job on the "how."

By Joseph Weber

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