Archive for September 24th, 2012


Monday, September 24th, 2012

By J. R. Moehringer

The Short Take:

I would never have thought that a novel based on a real bank robber would have any appeal for me. Boy, was I wrong! This book fascinated not only due to its portrayal of the elusive and charismatic Willie Sutton but also for its subtext of how banks through history have caused economic depressions that impact everyone else.


Willie “The Actor” Sutton is said to have robbed 100 banks and gotten away with some two million dollars, all while never firing a shot. This is his story in novelized form. But it is also a story of romance, family ties, loyalty, persistence, and the hatred of banks.

The plot is built around two time lines. One follows Sutton’s first day of freedom in 1969, when he is required to give an exclusive interview and uses that interview to visit the New York City landmarks of his life. The other is the linear story of his life, told in context with those landmarks.

This juxtaposition works very nicely, as it allows the reporter and photographer of the 1969 “present” to comment on Sutton’s past. Plus, the use of italics for the 1969 story keeps everything nice and clear.

Moehringer’s Sutton is fascinating, but not in that horrible, can’t-look-away fashion of many mobster tales. Nothing is glamorized, but you can feel the heart of a real person — with all the flaws and good qualities that go along with that. This is quite an achievement since with Willie Sutton it is difficult to separate fact from fiction — he certainly didn’t do it himself. Even Sutton’s two autobiographies aren’t in agreement.

Nevertheless, Moehringer’s depiction is rich in texture and certainly feels like the story of a real person.

This novel also shows how the actions of banks can ruin the lives of many. In Sutton’s lifetime there was depression after depression, keeping tens of thousands (or more) from finding  employment. Banks failed and wiped out savings this was before FDIC insurance). Everyone suffered, except the bankers whose speculative habits caused these downturns.

That’s one reason bank robbers like Willie Sutton became folk heroes — they were the only ones punishing the banks.

But don’t think of this as simply a gangster’s life, it is also the story of a life-long love.

A Little Plot:

Pardoned for his crimes and released from prison on Christmas Eve, Willie Sutton spends the next day revisiting landmarks that represent turning points in his life with a reporter and photographer.

A child of Irish town and poverty, with no job opportunities — actually none of this is why he became a criminal. It was all because he loved a woman.

The repercussions of that love started him down a path of crime, extensive jail time, and brief interludes of an almost normal existence. Yet, through it all, his love persisted.

I didn’t easily spot a website for Moehringer, but you can see  an interview that focuses on this book by clocking here.


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