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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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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.

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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: 5.5 x 1 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (147 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #606,250 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 30 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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21 of 24 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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17 of 19 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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15 of 17 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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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Mary G. Longorio VINE VOICE on September 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Between mid June 1933 and the end of 1935 Americans were caught up in the war on crime. J. Edgar Hoover's FBI were trying to rid the country of criminals whose names we still recognize today.....John Dillenger, Bonnie and Clyde,Baby Face Nelson,Alvin Karpis,Ma Barker and her boys. The Lindbergh kidnaping had left a deeply shaken nation, and Hoover wanted his department to lead the way to a new crime free era. Hoover's men didn't carry guns,they investigated. That set them at adistinct disadvantage to the gangsters, they carried guns and were willing to use them. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, Byran Burrough introduces us to a group of unforgettable persons,stripping away myth. Interestingly, Hoover, himself is responsible for many of the myths that sprang up about the G men. These G men were mostly

college educated, mixed with some seasoned lawmen who shared the visionof a national bureau designed to stamp out crime. Some were more driven towards self promotion(Melvin Purvis's legend takes a beating)which was in direct competition with Hoover's need to micro manage and claim the glory.

Familiar crime figures are given faces(not the most attractive bunch)and their backgrounds are fleshed out.The emergence of the planned bank robbery,with getaway car and lookouts raised the stakes. Many of these criminals shared loose ties and often you find members of one gang involved in another's scheme. In a somewhat telling moment Bonnie Parker, when asked what she wanted the public to know about her

replied "I don't smoke cigars". As crimes are carried out, these gangs seem to get away, almost at will. The FBI are slow on the trail, hampered by local police(often corrupt)and their own infighting and unwillingness to check tips and follow up leads.
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