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SUTTON by J. R. Moehringer: Book Review

Could Sutton refer to anyone but Willie Sutton, bank robber extraordinaire?  Google “Willie Sutton,” and you get nearly four million hits.  His life has been the subject of a television episode on “Gang Busters” in 1952 and a documentary entitled “In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton” in 2011.  And now his life has produced a book, and an excellent one it is.

Sutton opens on Christmas Eve, 1969, when Willie was pardoned and released from Attica Correctional Faculty where he had been serving a fifty year sentence.  His unexpected release caused, in the author’s words, “a media frenzy,” but Willie granted only one interview.  J.R. Moehringer states in the Author’s Note that the published interview was a superficial one, and this book is his attempt to write what he thinks happened, or wishes had happened, on the day of the interview.

Willie was born into a poor Irish-American family, the fourth of five children, in 1901 in New York City.  According to the book, he was brutalized by his two of his older brothers, and that’s when he learned, at a young age, not to “squeal” or “be a rat,” the worst possible things one could do or be in his neighborhood.  Forced by family financial woes to leave school after the eighth grade, Willie turned to crime after he was let go from a series of dead-end jobs due to the Great Depression.  Starting out robbing jewelry stories, Willie soon was living the high life in a fancy hotel, dressing like a gentleman, eating in New York City’s finest restaurants.

The story is told both “in the present,” that being Christmas Day, the day after Willie leaves prison, and flashbacks to the past, when Willie thinks about his life.  He makes the two newspaper men, referred to only as the Reporter and the Photographer, drive all over the city so that he can relive his life in chronological order.

The romance in Willie’s life was Bess Endner, the daughter of a wealthy New York family.  When Willie was eighteen and Bess was sixteen, the two began a Romeo-and-Juliet romance that ended, as it could only do, badly.  The two of them, plus a friend of Willie’s, stole $16,000 from Bess’ father’s safe and fled to Massachusetts in an unsuccessful attempt to get married.  For the rest of Willie’s life he was haunted by his memories of Bess and the life they could have had together.

J.R. Moehringer has written a fascinating novel about a man who, as they say, needs no introduction.  Sutton, like Dillinger and Capone, doesn’t even need a first name to be identified; his incredible robberies, which netted him more than two million dollars over his lifetime, made him famous, or infamous, in the annals of twentieth-century crime.

All the characters in Sutton jump out from the novel’s pages:  Willie’s brutal brothers, his indifferent parents, the beautiful Bess, and the myriad accomplices who either remained loyal to Willie or betrayed him.  This is a beautifully written book, with its look into the heart-breaking poverty that many faced, even before the Depression, and Willie’s attempts to find happiness by accumulating immense wealth.

Mr. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, doesn’t have a web site, but there are many articles about him and this book on the Internet.

Special thanks to Lorry Diehl who recommended Sutton to me.  Lorry is the author of four books about Manhattan, her home town.  You can read more about her at this web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.







CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE by Owen Laukkanen: Book Review

When a “good” man turns bad, there are bound to be questions.  Was he always evil and kept it hidden, or were circumstances too much for him to deal with, forcing him to turn evil?  Such are the questions that every reader of Criminal Enterprise will ask, and each reader will have to answer for herself or himself.

Carter Tomlin was a happy man.  He had an important job with a big salary, a loving wife, and two darling daughters.  He lived in a mini-mansion in Minneapolis and drove a Jaguar.  But then came the economic downturn in 2007-08.  Carter was laid off from his job and things started to turn bad.  He was about to fall behind on his mortgage payments, his wife took a temporary teaching job she hated, and his daughters had a long list of Christmas presents they had to have.  He felt like a failure, that he was “less of a man” for not supporting his family.

He started a small accounting business but that wasn’t able to bring in the amount of money he felt he needed.  So, on the spur of the moment, he bought a clumsy disguise, walked into a Bank of America branch, and came away with eighteen hundred dollars.  His second robbery yielded three thousand dollars, but that still wasn’t sufficient to cover his expenses.  So Carter got some guns, and things escalated from there.  Like a road map, readers can follow the step-by-step moral disintegration of Carter Tomlin.

Criminal Enterprise brings together the two protagonists in Own Laukkanen’s first novel, The Professionals (reviewed on this blog).  FBI Special Agent Carla Windermere and Special Investigator Kirk Stevens of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehensions teamed together to bring down Arthur Pender and his accomplices.  After that, Kirk’s wife Nancy made it clear that she didn’t want him working with the FBI again. “I married a cop…I knew what I was getting into.  But this hero stuff doesn’t work.  Not for me, Kirk.”  And Kirk totally understands.  It’s just that his state job now seems so tame by comparison, and he doesn’t have the camaraderie with his BCA officers that he had with Carla.

Carla is feeling the same way about her fellow FBI agents, most particularly her current partner.  He seems to have trouble with a female partner, especially one who made headlines on her last case.  He’s the one with seniority, and he wants her to follow in his footsteps, not step out on her own.

The novel is told from three main points of view, and each one pulls the reader more deeply into the story.  Carter Tomlin takes the reader into the world of entitlement that he is losing, his fear of letting his family down, his growing need for more action and violence in his criminal enterprises.  Kirk Stevens is a man who loves his wife and his children but is still tempted by the excitement he felt on the Pender case.  Carla Windermere is sure that her feelings about Carter are right and that her partner’s shooting of the man he thinks is the criminal they’re looking for is wrong.

Owen Laukkanen has written a terrific follow-up to The Professionals.  His characters and their motivations are right on; you won’t be able to put this novel down.

You can read more about Owen Laukkanen at his web site.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Reads blog at her web site.