Let us all give thanks for gifted storytellers
I enjoyed this enormously. It was a recommended read from another blog, a library collective – so here is the review which made me buy the book Thanks, bfgb!
This really falls more into the Fictionalised Biography and Literary Fiction genre than it ever does into the Crime Fiction category, even though its subject is Willie Sutton, a notorious, audacious, bank robber who was highly successful (despite getting caught several times!) at bank heists and escaping from prison. Sutton spent more than half his adult life behind bars. He captured the public’s imagination, and became a somewhat romanticised folk hero, not least because he did not personally shoot anyone, and appeared (or so the legend said) to abjure violence against the person.
Moehringer is a stylish, well crafted writer, and the literary devices he uses in this novel work perfectly, giving added dimensions. This is not a whodunnit – we know it was Willie, and we know right at the start of the novel that our protagonist did not get away with it, as it starts with his release from prison, on health grounds, as an ailing, elderly man. Instead, we have a psychological picture of a society and an individual life in that society.
The novel is told in a series of snapshot flashbacks. Following Sutton’s last release from prison in 1969 in his very late 60s, he agrees a deal to tell his story to a paper, and the book follows the day of the interview with a reporter and photographer. So what we have is Wiilie’s life story as told to 2 other individuals, the developing relationship between Sutton and the Reporter and Photographer (this is how they are referred to).
There is Willie’s story, there are references to the research information which may be a little different from Willie’s accounts, which the Reporter has used, and of course, there is the shifting, unreliable fact of subjective interpretation and memory. This has the effect, for the reader, of a continual change of focus, where we think we know where we are going with this, and suddenly the focus is ever so slightly changed, so that the whole picture looks a little different.
Sutton was born in 1901 and was active in his profession of bank robbing (with interruptions through incarceration), until his final arrest in 1952. What Moehringer is also giving us is a snapshot of America from the beginning of the nineteenth century, through the interwar and postwar years – but through the prism of 1969 – and beyond, as the book ends finally in 1980, after Sutton’s death
Sutton became a great reader and philosopher, an auto-didact, so we are also being given surprising and thoughtful reflections, from, challenging one’s prejudicial thinking, an unlikely source. The reader, like the Reporter and the Photographer, thinks a bank robber must be a particular sort of person, whereas inevitably individuals are more complex than their categorisations A very sure, finely crafted story, beautifully constructed, with a fine, melancholy, romantic, mood.