Public Enemies — by Bryan Burrough

I am re-posting this book review because the movie came out today, and it might be of interest.

Public Enemies
Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934

Bryan Burrough

Recommendation: read

It was one of those rare confluences in history where the notable and notorious reach critical mass and all manage to bump into one another. It happened when Dorothy Parker, Robert Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman and others coalesced at the Algonquin Round Table; times were right for Werner Heisenberg, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and other great brains in Europe to meet and create modern physics; and so with Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker, Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Dillinger. These Midwest kidnappers and bank robbers—or yeggs—flourished during the same brief time.

These underworld entities kept running into each other. Verne Miller, hit man responsible for the notorious Kansas City Massacre—a botched rescue of yegg Frank Nash, who was killed along with several agents—was being chased by cops in Chicago and ran into an apartment building. “In a bizarre coincidence, this was the very building where John Dillinger was then living.” Miller and Dillinger didn’t know each other.

If you were raised in the States in my generation or earlier, you will have heard of most of the names (probably from Bugs Bunny cartoons). These criminals were celebrities, with all the disgusting whitewash that status brings. For example, if you’ve only seen the movie, and haven’t read Mike Royko’s classic column reviewing it (near bottom of link), then you don’t know Bonnie & Clyde. Human scum. Murderous dreck. In the book, I cheered when Bonnie & Clyde’s car crashed and caught on fire, burning her down to the bone. She was in well-deserved agony for weeks. Both ran like terrified animals, scared and mentally defeated most of the time—but still managing to get in a murder or two—until they were finally hunted down by a Texas Ranger and some Louisiana cops and given the death they so richly deserved.

The book also details the creation of the FBI and the rise of Hoover, a man unknown to the world until he was able to ride the crime wave to shore up the struggling Bureau. Burrough argues that Hoover would have disappeared had he not had the all those lucky kidnappings and bank robbings that needed policing. The FBI was no certain thing.

There aren’t as many details about the FBI as there are of the crooks. We do learn that Hoover took his job seriously and that he sought publicity for the sake of the Bureau and not just for himself, but he wasn’t against exaggerating. He painted Ma Barker, in life a lonely solver of jigsaw puzzles, as the brains behind the Barker outfit after she was accidentally killed in a shootout by a stray bullet. His concocted story was better than explaining how an innocent old lady got shot. My guess is that Burrough will follow this book up with another focusing on Hoover.

Public Enemies

Crime buffs will love the detail, sometimes given minute by minute. But it’s a lot to go through. Names come at you fast, actions are sometimes hard to follow. This isn’t Burrough’s fault: his stated purpose is to be complete, and he had access to newly opened FBI files, but there’s work involved on the reader’s part to keep up. But the writing is good and pleasurable.

We meet everybody who was anybody in criminal and law enforcement circles—except for those in the Chicago syndicate and New York mob, organizations which had few ties to the outlaws—but it’s Dillinger that’s star of the show. Charismatic bank robber, one time murder of a cop who tried to arrest him, and by all accounts a very charming man. He knew he was a media darling and played up to his image of a tommy-gun toting robber of the rich, using it at one point, with assistance from his mafia-connected lawyer Louis Piquett, to make an escape from jail easier.

Hoover assigned initially Melvin Purvis to the job of hunting crooks, but he turned out to be a walking CF (a precise, and deeply meaningful term I learned in the military: the first letter stands for cluster; if you don’t know the whole phrase, it means screwup). Purvis was lazy, negligent, and couldn’t even find his own hat, let alone any crooks. But guess who the media gave the glory to? The man Hoover sent to supervise Purvis—Samuel Cowley—never cared for credit, and never got it, even after he was murdered by Baby Faced Nelson (at one point, Dillinger was a member of Nelson’s gang). Once reporters find an angle, they stick to it, truth be damned (some things never change).

Hollywood writers are the same. There is a moved “based on”—which almost always means “some of the names are right, all other details are changed”—the book about to appear. The trailer makes it appear that the flick’s title is “Dillinger versus Purvis: Battle to the Death”. Johnny Depp looks OK as Dillinger, but intensity-ham Christian Bale comes across goofy as always. Anyway, there is no way the movie can capture the rich details of the book.

Dillinger, it must be said, is highly filmable and had excellent taste in dress, a “clothes horse.” Discussion of dress salts the book. One passage sees Dillinger buying “sassy cravats” to go with his sharp boater. Another incident describes him donning a pair of size 24 Hanes briefs, “a pair of lightweight gray slacks, black socks, red Paris garters, and white buckskin Nunn Bush shoes. He buttoned his white kenilworth broadcloth shirt and twisted on a red-print tie.”

Hoover was no sartorial slouch, either. One picture shows that he knew that when wearing an overcoat, one must also wear a scarf for balance; and he didn’t neglect the pocket square. This was the time when male elegance was at its peak, and kids dressed like adults instead of the other way around.


  1. stan

    Matt wrote — There is a moved “based on”—which almost always means “some of the names are right, all other details are changed”—

    The worst example I’ve ever seen is Glory Road. Worst, because they didn’t use the “based on” description. They claimed it was the true story. Yet, other than the names, the entire movie is fiction, much of it slanderous.

  2. Joy

    I doubt the book’s on audio, but the film trailer looks ok. It’s not out here until 3rd July.
    The CF phrase is one I hadn’t heard until my brother enlightened me. He can’t say it without laughing It is descriptive.

  3. john

    I’ve never quite understood why people get so upset when a 2 hour movie doesn’t hold every detail of a 500 page novel.

  4. Briggs

    Maybe because it’s not a novel, John.

  5. john

    That’s right. It is a true crime document pieced together from police/news/and FBI reports and a ton of hard work. Written by a journalist who did his best to stay true to the facts as he rehashes and retells the events in his interpretation of how it happened. There is a reason ‘True Crime’ has it’s own section in the book store instead of being mixed inside ‘History’.

    Or Glory Road, the autobiography which had to be embellished by it’s coauthor because the actual story teller was so ho-hum about it, the story was unreadable. And the Movie which states on the cover, directly below the title, “based on a true story”

  6. Harry Eagar

    Dunno about the movie, but the book was superb. Burrough’s investigation of the K.C. shootout, a generation later, is a classic. Lucky there were photographs, which he persuasively argues show that the FBI version was all wrong.

    There have been many takedowns of the FBI, all of them well-merited, but this is the best. The funniest is “No Left Turns” by Joseph Schott, but good luck finding it.

  7. Joy

    How many bullets?

    Problem is that Johnny D is always lovely and, add to this the fact that care was taken to show
    Dillanger in a sympathetic light. There was something missing, character development, I think.
    Visually sumptuous but not a lot else although the last scene was touching.
    And those shades at the end were dreadful.

  8. David Windsor

    I saw the film, “Public Enemies”, and it was extremely true to the historical facts. No embelishing, no docu-dramatizing. The only item I noticed that is controversial, and it is very minor, is the story of how the FBI tracked Dillinger to Little Bohemia. Historians usually say that “someone” working at Little Bohemia recognized the gansters, became concerned, and tipped the FBI. The film claims that one of Dillinger’s henchmen, captured during a bank robbery, was forced to talk by the Chicago police, and revealed Dillinger’s location. Regardless, this is an excellent film, and I highly recommend it.

    The book is a very readable work of history, in no way, shape, or form a novel. It introduces the reader to far more gansters and cops than the movie could ever have space for. You’ll like it, too.

  9. Briggs

    Great news, David! I look forward to the movie.

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