'Public Enemies' explores a time when rural outlaws reigned.
"Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934" by Bryan Burrough; Penguin Press ($29.95)
Bryan Burrough's new book, "Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934," does not dig deeply into a single story. Rather, it shifts among all of that period's interconnected stories, giving us cause and context: how the Depression bore bitter fruit, how gangs learned to exploit fast cars and ill-coordinated police to score big, how young FBI agents turned to "the cowboys" (tough Texas lawmen) to learn how to track and kill criminals, how J. Edgar Hoover saved a tiny bureaucracy by making it an "activist" New Deal program and gave us a national police force no one had planned on.
Brief and violent
Histories have related the rise of the FBI before this, of course, notably Richard Gid Powers' books on the bureau and Hoover. But even readers who know the saga may be surprised at how brief and violently simultaneous the heyday of these bank robbers was.
Baby Face Nelson (a psychopath), Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde (essentially two-bit punks rescued from obscurity by Hollywood), the Barker-Karpis Gang and John Dillinger -- the most charismatic and resourceful of them all -- simultaneously and sometimes in combination, cut a violent swath across the middle of America, staging bank robberies, kidnappings and hold-ups, before escaping, often in a fusillade of bullets from submachine guns.
"Enemies" begins with the Kansas City Massacre in June 1933, the tommy-gun slaughter of five men in broad daylight. It ends 18 months later with one of these major gangsters, Alvin Karpis, still at large.
Didn't touch the mob
During that "War on Crime," Hoover didn't touch the established New York or Chicago mobs. Yet the FBI and various police forces gunned down nearly every big-name, rural outlaw from Nelson to Dillinger, the Barrows -- some of them in what were essentially state-sanctioned hits.
Relying on recently opened FBI records, Burrough shows that the agency then more resembled the Keystone Kops than the seemingly (before 9 / 11 anyway) omnipotent force it was to become. At the beginning, its agents didn't know how to investigate or even, in many cases, how to shoot guns. In most spectacular ways, the FBI and other law enforcers found themselves overmatched, outwitted, embarrassed and sometimes dead.
To give an idea of those tumultuous months: Dillinger broke out of jail twice (one of his escapes from jail, using a wooden gun, did not inspire public confidence), robbed eight banks, underwent plastic surgery and escaped two FBI traps. Meanwhile, Bonnie and Clyde raided the Eastham Prison, shot three officers, eluded capture -- and so on.
In fact, the book's single weakness is that the carnage becomes numbing. One heist blurs into another, one ambush into another.
Using the FBI's own previously secret reports, Burrough finds Hoover and his early agents, including Melvin Purvis, to be either howlingly inept or all-too-willing to beat and kidnap witnesses.
The FBI was on a steep learning curve, though; it got better. But the seeds of the bureau's later problems, Burrough argues, were planted here. The use of wiretaps, for example, produced relatively few usable leads. But that didn't stop the FBI from continuing to rely on them.
None of this means Burrough is siding with the outlaws, as some Amazon.com readers have complained. He has a grudging respect for Karpis -- the cagiest of this crew -- but it's more characteristic that the author paints Pretty Boy Floyd as a psychopath so brutal he rattled even Dillinger. He also concludes that Bonnie and Clyde were unwisely celebrated: The 1967 Arthur Penn film took "a shark-eyed multiple murderer and his deluded girlfriend and transformed them into sympathetic characters, imbuing them with a cuddly likeability they did not possess, and a cultural significance they do not deserve."
That doesn't sound particularly star struck. Ironically enough, Burrough contends, it was actually Hoover's FBI that benefited most from the blessings of Hollywood. Onscreen, Jimmy Cagney went from playing hoodlums to playing our new national hero, the G-man. The studios had sensed a shift in America. The Depression was weakening, the New Deal took hold, hatred of bankers had turned to hope in federal agencies, even gun-toting ones. And in "Enemies," Burrough delineates this era with as much punch -- and much more insight -- than any Warner Brothers gangbuster flick.