Well, Operation: Finish the Book did not end as I’d hoped.
I’d noted that I was reading Selwyn Raab’s Five Families, a book that I’d been plowing through for nearly a year. I managed to work my way through another one hundred or so pages, but it was soon apparent that I’d lost my enthusiasm for the topic and the book itself. Sad, really, because the opening chapters were quite good. It’ll make a nice reference book (the reason I purchased it in the first place), but after a certain point it became more effective a sleep aid than Tylenol PM. With that in mind, I find myself now turning to two newer books: Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (2005), and Skip Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin: Panic, Scandal, and the Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer (2016).
You may remember Public Enemies because of the film that came from it, which starred Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. The film – of which I’ve honestly seen maybe fifteen minutes – focused on Dillinger, but actually told the stories of fellow criminals Lester Gillis (known as ‘Babyface’ Nelson), Charles Arthur ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker, as well as the men who pursued them, including one John Edgar Hoover. Can’t comment on the film because of my limited exposure to it, but from what I did see, there was some liberty taken with the stories, and that alone tells me all I need to know.
Burroughs is first and foremost a reporter, having been at Vanity Fair for years. Because of that, his writing style is more fluid than your average historian (as a historian myself, I know of what I speak), and he paints a pretty interesting portrait of an age – less than a century ago – that redefined our collective perception of law and order. His subtitle is “The Birth of the FBI,” and that’s apt; according to Burroughs, the violent crime wave that ran from 1933 to 1934 in the American Middle West was an essential step in reorganizing the Bureau and making it into the premier law enforcement agency it is today.
I had this book for about three years until I’d decided that I would never read it. I packed it with several other books and sold them all to a used bookstore. That was over a year ago. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I was at the same used bookstore and I found a copy of the book on clearance for just $3. My copy? Doubtful, but a copy that was new, unread, and there for mere pennies. I checked their shelves; there were at least two other copies, and they were going for twice that, so naturally, I grabbed the cheaper edition. Having since read a ways into it, I’m very impressed, as well as miffed that I didn’t bother to read the book when I had it the first time. This is especially troubling for me – the historian – as I’ve been to many of the places that Dillinger and Company visited during their violent, and ultimately fatal, time in the Upper Midwest. So I’m happy to have a chance to correct a dreadful error on my part – I’m going to read this book.
The problem is that I’ve found a copy of Hollandsworth’s The Midnight Assassin, and this is one I’ve wanted for quite a while. It starts rather ominously: In 1885, a man in Austin, Texas, is awakened by a bloodied, bleeding, and panicked acquaintance, asking for help. The bloodied man’s girlfriend is missing, and all he knows is that a stranger is involved. It’s no spoiler to note that the girlfriend is discovered horrifically mutilated shortly thereafter – this is just the first of a series of equally brutal crimes that will plague Texas during that summer, three years before the Whitechapel Killer (better known as Jack the Ripper) appeared in London.
Like Public Enemies, I’ve only advanced into the first couple of chapters of The Midnight Assassin, but I like it already. Truth be told, I am vaguely familiar with the episode, so I’m more interested in how the narrative is presented – and I’ve not been disappointed. This is good, because unlike Five Families, I honestly think that these two books will be rather enjoyable to finish.