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Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 Paperback – April 29, 2009


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Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 + The Complete Public Enemy Almanac: New Facts and Features on the People, Places, and Events of the Gangsters and Outlaw Era, 1920-1940
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Mti Rep edition (April 29, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143115863
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143115861
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #201,333 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Burrough, an award-winning financial journalist and Vanity Fair special correspondent, best known for Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco, switches gears to produce the definitive account of the 1930s crime wave that brought notorious criminals like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde to America's front pages. Burrough's fascination with his subject matter stems from a family connection—his paternal grandfather manned a roadblock in Arkansas during the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde—and he successfully translates years of dogged research, which included thorough review of recently disclosed FBI files, into a graceful narrative. This true crime history appropriately balances violent shootouts and schemes for daring prison breaks with a detailed account of how the slew of robberies and headlines helped an ambitious federal bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover transform a small agency into the FBI we know today. While some of the details (e.g., that Dillinger got a traffic ticket) are trivial, this book compellingly brings back to life people and times distorted in the popular imagination by hagiographic bureau memoirs and Hollywood. Burrough's recent New York Times op-ed piece drawing parallels between the bureau's "reinvention" in the 1930s and today's reform efforts to combat the war on terror will help attract readers looking for lessons from history.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

The literature on Depression-era desperadoes such as John Dillinger is exhaustive but hardly exhausted, as Stanley Hamilton's Machine Gun Kelly's Last Stand (2003) and Burroughs' offering indicate. Burroughs imparts his personal fascination with such charismatic criminals to his readers as he strips the mopes of folkloric myth to restore them to their rightful places as bank robbers, kidnappers, carjackers, and cop killers. Burroughs' work also benefits from recently released FBI records. His narrative seamlessly incorporates that information with extant knowledge, a boon to readers ready for a chronicle of the cases that elevated the Bureau of Investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1933 the BI was not yet the country's premier police agency; it became so via its pursuit of gangsters who murdered BI agents in an infamous Kansas City attack. Burroughs' grip on J. Edgar Hoover's subsequent investigations is solid as he slyly dramatizes what kind of people Bonnie and Clyde, "Baby Face" Nelson, "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the Karpis-Barker gang, and their confederates really were. A 10-strike for the true-crime fan. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Bryan Burrough is a special correspondent for Vanity Fair, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal and the author of three previous books.

Customer Reviews

This book is very well researched with plenty of documentation as to where the author got his information.
M. Koch
I recommend this book to those interested in US history, true crime stories, and to anyone interested in an entertaining and very informative nonfiction book.
Peter J.
The book covers the likes of Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and others in a chronological order in regard to time.
Bill Emblom

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Ellen Poulsen on August 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
When I first opened this credible, well-researched book, I was delighted to see photos of the FBI agents I have admired in my own Dillinger research. For the first time, a face to the men who put their lives on the line to hunt the public enemies of the 1930s! Also, as a person who has researched the Dillinger women for almost two decades, my delight with the book was established at the respect Burrough paid to the molls. Doris Lockerman's eyewitness account of the night Melvin Purvis helped Frechette, by letting her sleep during the endless interrogation - that is not an anti-FBI story but a pro-FBI story.

The term "plagiarism," in one review, confuses me completely. The use of quotes originally published under copyright by Melvin Purvis, is "fair use," not "plagiarism." Fair use is defined by publishing law, and there is no evidence of such encroachment here. In defense of quoting Melvin Purvis - the man was hounded and silenced by Hoover. It is important that readers, who may not have purchased Purvis's book, get the vantage point of his own opinions.

I agree with Rick Mattix that downloadable FBI documents are the tip of the iceberg. The FBI Reading Room holds the true history in the 38,000 pages on file in the stacks. Burrough has widely, and accurately, cited those documents.

And where is it written that historians can no longer examine the role of Melvin Purvis? Mr. Purvis, one of my heroes in the Dillinger saga, has inspired controversy since his original role in the FBI ended. Mr. Burrough went to great length to feature the faces of the FBI agents in a never-before published photo gallery. He honored their role by doing so.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Arrowleaf on August 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
"Public Enemies" is a an excellent book, loaded with detail and extremely readable. Burrough's unique approach to the subject matter (showing how the careers of the criminals and their pursuers intertwined over a remarkably short period of time) allows us to see ALL sides of the people and the events involved. As a result, it is neither pro-criminal nor pro-FBI -- rather it is a fascinating documentary of a remarkable time period in American history.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Evan Richards on July 22, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The reviewer who calls this a pro-criminal book should have his head examined. This book replaces the cartoon characters in our heads with the names Bonnie, Clyde, Dillinger, et al, with 3-dimensional human beings, and they're not pretty. They're compelling, because they're such monsters, but this is hardly a positive portrayal of these legendary ciminals! The heroes here are the FBI, who we see learning on the job, recovering from their disastrous mistakes, and taking these criminals down in the end. I bought this book b/c I read a review in TIme that called it "massively researched and ludicrously entertaining," and boy are both true.
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20 of 23 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Brian Burrough has taken alot of time to set the record straight about several major criminal gangs in the 1930s. John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, "Baby Face Nelson" and other criminals traveled primarily through the central U.S., robbing and murdering along the way. Local police deparmtents were either powerless to stop them or were so corrupt they wouldn't do anything. Into this situation stepped the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Investigation. (It was named the Federal Bureau of Investigation -- the F.B.I.-- later.) It's agents were not the highly-trained agents we see today. J. Edgar Hoover and his agents had to learn along the way; they get the job done, but mistakes are made as the criminals are rounded up. Be prepared to see the criminals in a new light: Bonnie and Clyde, for example, are nothing like the 1960s movie. The real Bonnie & Clyde were nothing but sociopaths who murdered at the drop of a hat.
If you have liked Burrough's other efforts (Barbarians at the Gate, Vendetta, and Dragonfly) you will enjoy Public Enemies. If you haven't read any of his previous works, get this book and you will be happy to have read it!
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By John P Bernat on March 26, 2007
Format: Audio CD
Whenever you produce an abridged version of any book, there is a risk that you'll edit out things which end up being not just relevant, but even critical to full enjoyment of the work.

That's pretty much the case here.

There is so much encyclopedic material in the full book that the abridgement loses way too many references. The result is, unfortunately, that the devoted reader misses pieces which are really crucial to understanding the huge picture of crime and criminals being painted here.

"Pentimento." I'd recommend skipping the abridged audio version and reading the whole book instead.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By D. Bakken on August 3, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As it is generally thought of, the great crime wave of 1933/1934 that turned the FBI into a major organization and made household names out of Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde, and the Barker Gang is in fact really just a story of your everyday basic thugs and killers who were connected together in the shadowy underworld of post-prohibition America.

According to Burrough, whose research is amazing in its scope and ability to "correct" other books, these criminals that are still household names today were simply the result of a couple of coincidences.

1 - The peak of the depression in the midwest had driven many people into poverty. This increase in poverty led to more crime. Also, since so many people were broke or bankrupt due to banks taking their property, bank robbers were viewed as heroes to many.

2 - The FBI in 1932 was primarily an organization designed to find kidnappers. This all changed when, for the first time, an FBI agent was killed in the line of duty (Kansas City Massacre). From then on, the FBI, under Herbert Hoover, went about trying to make itself into a national police force.

3 - The large number of criminals operating at the same time made it appear as if America were experiencing a "Crime Wave", when in fact it was just a short term by-product of the Depression.

4 - The FBI should've caught all of them numerous times but blew it because they were still trying to work out the kinks in their new role as a national police force.

I don't want to give too much away, so I will simply say this:

Even though the real stories of these criminals is less exciting than the myths about them, Burrough does a wonderful job of telling their stories, which are still more interesting and exciting than any fiction I have read in years.

Highly Recommended!
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