Book Review: Public Enemies

Al Capone once quipped, “You can get much further with a kind word and a gun then you can with a kind word alone.” A more precise summation of the Gangster Way you couldn’t ask for.

In Public Enemies, Bryan Burrough chronicles the true-life account of America’s greatest crime wave and the rise of the FBI, from 1933-1934. Drawing on a formidable array of sources – primarily federal files, released in bits and pieces since the mid-’80s – Burrough strips away the layer of myths surrounding the lives and exploits of infamous criminals like Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, Machine Gun Kelly, and the Barkers. What’s left is the spellbinding yet utterly factual story of the American “War on Crime” – and how the fledgling FBI grew up in the midst of it.

This is a great book – one which history buffs cannot afford to miss. As mentioned above, Burrough’s research is impeccable; his commitment to detail and accuracy tremendous.

Please keep one thing in mind as you read: This book was not “imagined,” as with some recent popular histories. It was reported. the conversations and dialogue in this book are taken verbatim from FBI reports, the Karpis transcripts, contemporary news articles, and the memories of the participants. If you’re wondering how I learned something, check the source notes. If I don’t know something, I’ll tell you. If there’s a mystery I can’t clear up – and there are a few – I’ll make that clear. (p. xiv)

Burrough pairs his research with splendid writing: Public Enemies is no dry, yawn-inducing history text. It’s an epic, colorful, artistically-excellent feat of storytelling, bolstered by prose that “bounces across the page like a getaway car through a wheat field.” (Newsweek)

Thanks to this, readers are put right in the middle of the action – from Dillinger’s prison breaks (including one where he used a wooden gun) to the pursuit of Bonnie and Clyde to the disastrous Battle at Little Bohemia. Engaging stuff. I kid you not: when it comes to grabbing and holding the reader’s attention, Public Enemies puts many novels to shame.

J. Edgar Hoover has always struck me as an interesting figure; and after reading this book, I find that he was, indeed, very interesting. I don’t have much respect for him, though. I respect much of what he accomplished – but his shifty, overbearing, and remarkably disingenuous ways make it difficult for me to admire the man himself.

For those curious about content issues: the gangsters swear like gangsters – including a handful of F-words – and their law-defying exploits result in a number of shootouts with the police and federal agents. Some of these firefights are relatively non-graphic; others are described in gritty detail, placing us right next the bloody, bullet-riddled corpses. (Police leveled 150 rounds at Bonnie and Clyde in the ambush that ended their careers.)

Public Enemies is first-rate: a book which I gladly recommend. It’s hard for me to imagine a more precise, fascinating, or better written examination of this critical era in American history.

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Public Enemies”

    1. The movie isn’t quite as accurate – nor is it as in-depth – but it’s still fantastic. :) One of the better gangster movies I’ve scene. You’ll enjoy it. Depp as Dillinger is absolute perfection.

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