Making celebrities out of people whose deeds aren’t exactly things to celebrate is well-established American pastime, and for several decades through the mid-20th century, bank robber Willie Sutton was one of the biggest. A master of disguise dubbed “The Actor” by the press, Sutton learned his “trade” on jewelry-store jobs, but soon moved on to robbing banks because--in one of those quotes long-attributed to someone who may or may not actually have said it--”that’s where the money was.” In an era of frequent financial depressions--the “Great” one of the 1930s was preceded by several smaller ones earlier in the century--banks were not popular institutions with beleaguered average Americans. But Sutton’s success in undermining them, combined with his reluctance to use violence in doing it, made him quite popular. However, in Moehringer’s take on Sutton’s story, it wasn’t all about the money; he really did it (mostly) for love.
Framed by the day of Sutton’s release from New York’s Attica State Prison--Christmas 1969--which he spent in the company of a reporter and a photographer, traveling back and forth throughout New York City on a tour of his personal history, most of Sutton is told in flashback. Largely self-educated through his love of books, Willie portrays himself as a methodical thinker and careful planner (except, perhaps, in selecting his partners in crime), driven by tough economic times and lack of schooling into the only “career” path that offered the potential means to win the lovely and well-off Bess Endner. If popular acclaim for taking on--or, rather, from--those bloodsucking bankers, jars of cash buried all over New York City, and a spot at the top of the FBI’s very first Ten Most Wanted list are any measures, he was quite a success at his job.
Sutton wasn’t a Robin Hood--he “robbed from the rich,” yes, but didn’t exactly redistribute the wealth--but his activities were born of a common resentment of the financial markets and the effects of their boom-and-bust machinations on the working classes. Nearly a century later, we’re again living under conditions similar to those that spawned his criminal career--bank failures, unemployment, property loss--and those similarities suggested to Moehringer that this antihero’s story might resonate with a new audience.
It helps that it’s a fast-moving, fast-talking narrative researched and related by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The book has some stylistic quirks--most notably the lack of quotation marks in dialogue and use of present tense throughout--that some readers may find bothersome, but didn't bother me; I actually found they enhanced the book's impact. That said, Sutton is historical fiction and not biography, and Willie Sutton may not be an entirely reliable narrator--but he’s got a heck of a story, and I was thoroughly drawn into it. They don’t make bank-robbing antiheroes like that any more.