The 1920s and 30s seems to be THE era for crime writing at the moment. There’s of course Boardwalk Empire on HBO and Dennis Lehane’s lastest novel, Live By Night, also taps into the prohibition era. (Coincidentally Lehane and George Pelcanos have signed on to write and produce the next season of Boardwalk Empire). This novel dives into the same era to tell is a fictionalized account of infamous bank robber Willie Sutton aka Willie the Actor (who I hadn’t heard of before).
The book opens in 1969 with Willie Sutton being released from jail after more than half his life behind bars. He has been released on medical grounds. As part of his release Willie’s lawyer has organized an exclusive interview with a New York newspaper. The novel is told as Willie recounts his life to a reporter. Willie has become a folk hero over the course of his life and much of his story has become legend perpetuated by the media. As Willie tells his story he gets lost in his memories as he elaborates and embellishes his loves, his losses, his robberies and his escapes from prison. Willie’s version doesn’t quite line up with the legend and the truth lies somewhere in between.
Part Billy Bathgate with elements of The Shawshank Redemption this is a really enjoyable read that takes you back to the time of bank robbers and living on the run. It is also about reminiscences of chances taken and lost and how myths and legends are made and the power they have to destroy and ruin.
Moehringer brings Sutton vividly to life from his youth on the mean streets of Irish Town in Brooklyn through prohibition and The Depression to 1950s New York. You feel like you are sitting next to Willie in the car on his journey round New York with the reporter and photographer and by the time you get to the end you know you are going to miss Willie and his crazy life. I loved how banks were portrayed as the villain in Willie’s life; their greed in the good times and culpability in the bad times. A cycle that is still repeating today.
Classification: Crime & mystery
Format: Paperback (197mm x 130mm x mm)
Imprint: Blue Door
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publish Date: 7-May-2013
Country of Publication: United Kingdom