The men and women at the center of this book are American legends: John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barker gang, and "G-Man" J. Edgar Hoover have all become part of our national folklore. Bryan Burrough's Public Enemies strips away Depression-era myths to reveal the even more fascinating truth about America's most spectacular crime wave and the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Vanity Fair correspondent uses newly released official files and other material to create an action-packed yet analytical narrative about the evolving warfare between lawmen and lawbreakers. Exposing the blunders and narrow misses of the tenderfoot FBI, he describes how Hoover cobbled together the Bureau's lofty public image from less-than-perfect performances. A first-rate read.
Burrough, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair and the author of Barbarians at the Gate, has written a book that brims with vivid portraiture. His Dillinger is haunting, a figure out of the fiction of Richard Ford, a man of meanness and sorrow and deep rural pessimism … As the story of the F.B.I.'s emergence from the 10-ring circus that was 1934, Public Enemies is excellent true crime with all the strengths and limitations this implies.
The New York Times
Burrough, an award-winning financial journalist and Vanity Fair special correspondent, best known for Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, switches gears to produce the definitive account of the 1930s crime wave that brought notorious criminals like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde to America's front pages. Burrough's fascination with his subject matter stems from a family connection-his paternal grandfather manned a roadblock in Arkansas during the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde-and he successfully translates years of dogged research, which included thorough review of recently disclosed FBI files, into a graceful narrative. This true crime history appropriately balances violent shootouts and schemes for daring prison breaks with a detailed account of how the slew of robberies and headlines helped an ambitious federal bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover transform a small agency into the FBI we know today. While some of the details (e.g., that Dillinger got a traffic ticket) are trivial, this book compellingly brings back to life people and times distorted in the popular imagination by hagiographic bureau memoirs and Hollywood. Burrough's recent New York Times op-ed piece drawing parallels between the bureau's "reinvention" in the 1930s and today's reform efforts to combat the war on terror will help attract readers looking for lessons from history. Agent, Andrew Wylie. 6-city author tour. (July 22) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Burrough (coauthor, Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco) is clearly a gifted writer and a skilled researcher. Yet while many of the vignettes in this portrait of a crime era read like the best fiction, the book suffers from considerable back and forth and ends up a disappointing, disjointed affair. Just when the reader starts turning pages faster as the FBI begins to move in on Baby Face Nelson, Burrough switches to the hunt for John Dillinger. However colorful, the various gang members become harder and harder to distinguish, and the uninitiated will find themselves confused by the seemingly bland recitation of FBI agents complete with birth date, service dates, etc. and the criminals they pursued. With so much material, including recently released FBI files, Burrough could easily have filled twice the pages. In fact, he intends this to be serious history and rails against the Hollywood treatment afforded these murderous criminals, yet he, too, is guilty of sensational writing. Of interest mainly to true fans. Karen Sandlin Silverman, CFAR-Ctr. for Applied Research, Philadelphia Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
A rollicking, rat-a-tat ride with Clyde Barrow, Ma Barker, and a raft of inept (but a few first-rate) G-men. Though J. Edgar Hoover argued otherwise-and wrote gainsayers out of the official histories-his fledgling FBI was a thoroughly politicized bureaucracy just like any other, torn by rivalries and full of guys who just couldn't handle the work. (And so, it appears from recent testimonials before Congress, it remains.) Hoover's agents were ill-equipped to handle the flood of violent crime that washed over the nation in the first years of FDR's administration-which, Vanity Fair correspondent Burrough notes, "wasn't the beginning of a crime wave, it was the end of one." Where bank robbery had been comparatively rare, those years saw an explosion of attacks across the country, mostly in rural settings; committed by men and women such as Bonnie Parker, John Dillinger, and Machine Gun Kelly, they met with public understanding, if not approbation, for the economy had tanked, and the public blamed bankers for the hardships they now had to endure. Part of Hoover's mission in declaring open warfare on these criminals, writes Burrough, was to battle "the idea of crime, the idea that too many Americans had come to tolerate crime." Given the celebrity that the likes of Ma Barker and Pretty Boy Floyd came to enjoy, Hoover surely had a point, even though he and his boys got it wrong much of the time; Ma Barker, to name one putative public enemy, decried as the murderous, machine-gun-spraying brains of a monstrous ring, "wasn't even a criminal, let alone a mastermind." But plenty of the people the G-men went after were criminals, sometimes even masterminds, and very dangerous, just as likely to gundown passersby as cops and bank dicks; as Burrough writes, Baby Face Nelson in particular lives up to his reputation: "a caricature of a public enemy, a callous, wild-eyed machine-gunner who actually laughed as he sprayed bullets toward women and children."Iconoclastic and fascinating. A genuine treat for true-crime buffs, and for anyone interested in the New Deal era. Agents: Andrew Wylie, Jeffrey Posternak/Wylie Agency
"Brims with vivid portraiture ... Excellent true crime." The New York Times Book Review
"An amazingly detailed true-life thriller..." Entertainment Weekly
"It is hard to imagine a more careful, complete and entrancing book on the subject, and on this era." The Washington Post
"[A] riveting true-crime tale... Fascinating... The real story, it turns out, is much better than the Hollywood version." The Wall Street Journal
"Spellbinding... A model of narrative journalism and [a] gripping read." BusinessWeek