Tag Archives: public enemies

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.

On the Bookshelf IX

Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child by Anthony Esolen
I finished this only yesterday, and here’s my verdict: WOW. Loved it from start to finish, and couldn’t help but wonder why I hadn’t read it sooner. Definitely a top contender for best non-fiction book I’ve read this year. The title is slightly misleading, though: this isn’t a book just for parents. Anybody and everybody (with a brain) can benefit from Esolen’s shrewd writing and profound insight.
Bone, Vol. 1: Out from Boneville by Jeff Smith
My interest in graphic novels has grown significantly over the past year, so I’ve been compiling a list of titles to check out. Bone – a massive, critically-acclaimed nine-volume fantasy epic – was at the top of my list. From what I’ve read, it’s sort of like Lord of the Rings with a humorous twist. And I’m already loving the artwork. Unique and eye-catching.
Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough
The story of America’s greatest crime wave and the birth of the FBI. I watched Michael Mann’s film adaption last year and was impressed; so naturally, when I realized it was based on a book, I went snooping – in a good kind of way. My copy should arrive in the mail this morning. Awesome.
Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
“You can be young, passionate about Jesus Christ, surrounded by diversity, engaged in a postmodern world, reared in evangelicalism and not be an emergent Christian. In fact, I want to argue that it would be better if you weren’t.” Of all the books currently on my bookshelf, this is probably the one I’m most excited about.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I’ve heard so much about this book that I figured it was time to give it a read. It’s been recommended by several people I greatly respect, including my Mom. Besides, she wants me to watch the movie with her. I’d best get cracking.
Lit!: A Christian Guide to Reading Books by Tony Reinke
Another book I can’t wait to dig into. I love Andrew Peterson’s recommendation: “Tony Reinke has made a wise, theological, and edifying case for why words matter. I’ll mention Lit! every time someone asks me why in the world Christians should read fiction – a question that never fails to shock me. Now, instead of snapping, ‘Are you serious?’ and spouting opinions, I’ll just smile and slip them a copy of this book.”

What’s on your bookshelf right now?