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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Downey's Wild Review



When I was offered a chance to review the new book, Dillinger's Wild Ride by Elliot Gorn my first thought was that it was going to be a hastily thrown together book aimed at cashing in on the release of Public Enemies. I figured my initial thought was confirmed when I read the acknowledgements. In them Mr. Gorn states that he approached his friendly librarian and said, "I'm getting interested in crime in the '30's; what have you got?" So he made a pretty quick jump from interested party to author.

Flipping through the photo section this became apparent as he presents a fraudulent wanted poster. The picture is Dillinger's mug shot taken after his Tucson arrest and the poster states that he may be in the company of Harry Pierpont and Charles Markley[sic]. It also says that if you see Dillinger you should notify your local police or the FBI. As all Dillinger students know, Pierpont and Makley were arrested with him in Tucson and the FBI wasn't known as the FBI until 1935, the year following Dillinger’s death. A novice mistake, which again made me think, if you let that slip by should you really be writing a book on Dillinger?

So, not expecting much I started reading the book. Turns out I enjoyed it. It is a concise history of the Dillinger story and Mr. Gorn hits all important events and then describes the national reaction by quoting from newspapers from around the country. Some editorials pictured Dillinger as Huck Finn who fell in with a bad crowd while others thought him a cold hearted killer. This aspect was interesting for a while but by the end I didn't really care what the Zanesville Times or the Bismarck Tribune had to say. I did find the Hollywood, Will Hayes response to the subject interesting.

As an academic Gorn also offers some analysis of both the subject and the America of his time. Why he was loved/loathed. I found his analysis of John's letters and what it said about the bank robber the most interesting. The final chapter, Dillinger's ghost, follows the bandit in popular culture over the past 75 years, in my opinion a little to much time was spent on the ballads written about him in the 1930's but that’s a small criticism.

As for just trying to cash in on the summer of Dillinger; Mr. Gorn tells us that he wrote the book over the course of 2005-06, and his book is different from all the others because he, “…seek[s] to explain how the Dillinger story was created, interpreted, and reworked, how Americans felt about his exploits, and how we have come to remember him.” [Hence four pages about ballads as opposed to a paragraph] Other than the wanted poster snafu, which isn't a big deal, all authors make mistakes, it appears that the publishing gods smiled down on Mr. Gorn and his book was released a few months before the world gets to see Johnny Depp go gangbusters with a tommy gun. So no it isn't a hastily thrown together tome meant to cash in on Public Enemies. It is a well written account of Dillinger meant to cash in on Public Enemies. (note to self, consider Oxford University Press for next book, they are on the ball.)

So, if you are looking for a quick read with an academic bent to bone up on Dillinger before the movie opens, or if you want to know more about the story but don't want to invest the time in reading Public Enemies by Brian Burrough (which I strongly suggest you do) or a full blown Dillinger bio than by all means pick up Dillinger's Wild Ride -to repeat, it is well written and not a hack job. However if you are already a Dillingerphile this book won’t really tell you anything that you don’t already know about Johnnie. It will however shine a light on society's reaction to the bank robber.
(note to self: You ain't no academic, forget about Oxford University Press)

1 comment:

Rose Keefe said...

Pat Downey for president!!

Of what, I don't know yet....