5 July 2009

Public Enemies

Pretty Boy, Baby Face - I Love You
by Lew Louderback 1969

This is a scruffy, standard format paperback with a cut-out from an old black and white photo of a young lady from the 1930s pasted onto a white, but yellowing, background. She is striking a beligerent pose with a gun and a cigar and she seems to back up what the cover blurb promises for the inside: 'Hick boys and girls...from the hard-luck hills...the carnage of death in their trail'. Phew!

First thing on a random opening is a small section of photos. Actually, it's not such a random opening in this case as the heavier gloss pages of the photo section always fall open first, with all the predictability of a loaded dice. The pictures have the grainy urgency of newspaper work and feature the key players of the Public Enemy era. Hoover, Dillinger, Ma Barker - some of them startled by a popping flashgun, others riddled and dead on a slab. It's a gruesome but uncomfortably fascinating little gallery.

Leafthrough: any leafing through this book is always interrupted by the photos in the middle (see above), the rest being pulp-quality pages that have turned a nicotine pale brown. It's the sort of paper that the ink bleeds into leaving blotchy strings of letters. The chapters are short and efficiently titled and it looks like a book that you could get through in about a couple of hours.

Looking into it. Pretty Boy, Baby Face – I Love You exists in a more approachably titled edition called The Bad Ones. Oddly enough, the author’s name also exists in another form. For Lew Louderback, far from being a position in American football that involves a lot of shouting, was also known to write under the house pseudonym Nick Carter.

Louderback’s book was first published in 1968, a year after Faye Dunnaway and Warren Beatty had shot to stardom in Bonnie and Clyde, the first film to use blood squibs to give a sickeningly real approximation of what bullets actually do to people. The book was released to feed the huge appetite that the film provoked for stories of America’s Public Enemy Era; that period of the 1930s when the modern FBI and a host of criminal legends were born.

The writing style is as clipped and rapid as Machine Gun Kelly’s Tommy gun. It packs in an incredible amount of detail and runs through the set piece hold-ups and shoot-outs with all the panache of Clyde Barrow executing one of his famed getaway U-turns.

From Robin Hood to Ronnie Biggs, the law-abiding masses have been fascinated by the lives of those who have lived outside the law. Louderback himself shows a real relish in retelling the stories of the great public enemies, sketching their lives with a kind of analytical empathy that can’t help but reveal his particular favourites.

Many of the characters of the era had their own heroes and were acutely aware of the exploits of the gunslingers of some half a century earlier; the Billy the kids and the Doc Hollidays. But where the Western outlaws exploited the fragile civilization of newly settled land, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and the Barker boys burnt out brief and violent lives in a world made lawless by economic meltdown.

The crops failed in the dustbowl and the queues swelled outside the soup kitchens. But stories of Kathryn Kelly, covered in fox fur and Chanel originals, on the lam in her 16-cylinder roadster with her allegedly dangerous husband by her side were a welcome diversion. And the entertainment value was only enhanced by the antics of J Edgar Hoover and his bumbling G-Men.

Where today's keepers of public safety are regularly bamboozled by Sun hacks getting jobs as royal food testers, Hoover's men were always finding themselves turning up too late, netting small fry in expensively mounted trawling operations and, on a few, tragic occasions, shredding innocent citizens with badly researched bursts of gunfire.

The G-Men were on a hiding to nothing with a battered and desperate public who would have voted John Dillinger mayor of Chicago given half a chance. Dillinger was a particular favourite for his pure showmanship and the perception, credited by Louderback, that he never actually killed anyone. At one point, a petition was raised suggesting that Dillinger, on the run and Hoover's Public Rat Number One, should be granted a pardon if he gave himself up. "Many of the financial institutions of the States," it said, "have just as criminally robbed our citizens without any effort being made to punish the perpetrators."

Dillinger's escape from custody as he awaited trial after being triumphantly captured and sent to Crown Point, Indiana, threw Hoover into apoplexies. While he waited, Dillinger sat whittling away at an old washboard, making good his escape from Crown Point's new "escape-proof" unit with the aid of the wooden gun he had fashioned from it.

Inevitably, the outlaw gave way to the mobster, the small gang to the Organization, and Hoover and his men had new priorities. But it was a measure of just how irritating the Public Enemies had been to the authorities that J Edgar himself had insisted on being personally involved in the capture of the last of the Rats.

The arrest of Alvin Karpis, kidnapper, extortionist and bank robber, by a group of Feds led by Hoover gained the FBI the kind of headlines they had dreamed of ever since their inception.

But the public knew, then as now, what they wanted from their enemies. There is nothing quite like the humiliation of authority to put a smile on the workaday world. No matter how manfully Hoover and his men were portrayed in the papers, in the grocery store and on the street you would hear another side.

"Put the cuffs on him boys" J Edgar apparently said as he leapt onto the speeding running board of Karpis' getaway car. His men, who had scrambled on behind him, looked blankly at one another, patted their empty pockets and then started to take off their neck ties and use them to tie the rat's hands.

Above: Pretty Boy Floyd - or is it David Brent after another hard day at the office?

1 comment:

Malbuff said...

The "young lady from the 1930s pasted onto a white, but yellowing, background" on the cover is Bonnie Parker.