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by J.R. Moehringer
Blue Door, January 2013
352 pages
12.99 GBP
ISBN: 0007489900

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Willie Sutton was a real-life career criminal, on the first FBI 'Most Wanted' list, nonetheless loved by the public as a man who robbed banks but eschewed violence. On his release from a very lengthy prison sentence in 1969, he spent a day in New York in the company of a reporter and a photographer, visiting scenes from his life. In SUTTON, Moehringer retraces their route, and fills in the gaps in somewhat unreliable published biography with imagined episodes from Sutton's colourful life.

The choice of subject, well known in the USA if less so elsewhere, and the structure of the book, starting with the protagonist as an elderly man, deprives the author of much of the suspense that such a tale would normally carry with it. Even allowing for this, however, the story is curiously flat. If Moehringer is to be believed, Sutton certainly suffered from repeated blows of fate, including brutal siblings, a first love who lured him into a crime for which he largely took the blame, and several betrayals by confederates. But much of the responsibility for Sutton's criminal history is attributed to successive economic dislocations, and the rich bankers who supposedly engineered them. Plenty of Americans suffered much the same, or worse, and kept to the straight and narrow. The justifications for Sutton's behaviour are piled on in a rather obvious way, but at the end are not really convincing.

What is particularly striking about Sutton's career is how often a good thing is brought to an abrupt end by stupid behaviour or weak partners. This is not unique amongst criminals, which is why the police are able to catch them. But Sutton was intelligent, well-read, and planned his bank jobs with care, abandoning robberies when any unfavourable circumstances arose. It is difficult to understand, therefore, why when he did have a good run and accumulated large amounts of cash, he would not take elementary precautions, or distance himself from confederates who were asking to be arrested. In his initial foray, when he assents to the urgings of his girlfriend Bess to break open her father's safe and elope with the takings, their actions are such as to almost guarantee capture. One such lapse could be attributed to inexperience; frequent repeats look like carelessness, and are not conducive to empathy.

SUTTON is told in the present tense throughout, with 1969 episodes set in italics to distinguish them from earlier experiences. Dialogue is not given inverted commas, which works most of the time, although it is sometimes unclear whether a thought is voiced or not. One interesting facet of the book is the way Moehringer incorporates uncertainties about Sutton, as revealed by the many contradictions in his memoirs. In the final analysis though, the book stands or falls by whether you find Sutton an engaging character. Not everybody will find him interesting enough.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, November 2012

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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