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In Public Enemies, bestselling author Bryan Burrough strips away the thick layer of myths put out by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to tell the full story—for. PUBLIC ENEMIES: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, – Bryan Burrough, Author. Penguin Press $ (p). PUBLIC ENEMIES. America’s Greatest Crime Wave. and the Birth of the FBI, By Bryan Burrough. Illustrated. pp. The Penguin.

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Ever since the launch of J Edgar Hoover’s federal law enforcement agency in the mids, historians have debated why he failed to pursue the mafia untilwhen an accidental raid of a top-level mob convention at Appalachin threw the spotlight on organised crime. In the years following prohibition, mob boss Lucky Luciano was able to establish a national power structure untroubled by FBI agents.

One theory is that Hoover, an inveterate gambler on the horses, got his racing tips from an underworld fixer.

Another view is that Hoover was obsessed with publicity, and he knew that the mafia, with its complex ties to politics and the police, would not give him the headline-grabbing victories that he desired. For this, he needed a clearly identifiable public enemy, whose pursuit and capture would bring the FBI instant prestige.

ThroughoutHoover’s fledgling agency focused its energies almost exclusively on pursuing bank robbers whose fearsome reputations would reflect glory on their captors. In what was dramatically termed the war on crime, Hoover’s men went after armed robbers including John Dillinger, the Barker Gang, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, outlaws who became household names as they cut a swath through the Mid West, robbing banks and petrol stations and taking hostages, evading capture for months on end.

Dillinger, with his lop-sided smile and cleft chin, became a popular hero in the Depression, nurturing his reputation by showing courtesy to hostages.

Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough | : Books

Ordinary people supported him pblic he stole from the banks, which were widely accused of exploiting the poor. At his death, Dillinger’s mythology was such that onlookers soaked their handkerchiefs in his blood as a memento. Burrough has no illusions about most of his cast of desperadoes: Ma Barker was a frowsty housewife obsessed with jigsaws, nowhere near intelligent enough to mastermind her sons’ gang as the FBI alleged.


Bonnie and Clyde, far from the glamorous image crafted in Hollywood after their deaths, were young, hapless and charmless, bored children of the Depression – and butrough failures at robbing banks. Public Enemies is a rollicking ride through an endless series of bank heists and car chases, with hoodlums like the year-old Nelson laughing as he fired off machine guns and hurled roofing tacks under the tyres of pursuing police cars.

The tale is narrated in the clipped language of FBI memos, punctuated by the bank robbers’ growls and barks. A rare female voice, that of Doris Rogers, the all-seeing secretary at FBI headquarters, adds a much-needed note of humanity.

She describes the pitiful women, casualties of the Depression, who stayed with desperate men because they didn’t know where the next meal was coming from. Rogers also knew, because she was dating some of the agents, how many of them burrohgh afraid they were going to die on a mission to which few felt any commitment.

The FBI was woefully ill-equipped, byran inexperienced in the essential arts of surveillance and developing informers. After one bungled raid, a newspaper dubbed them “Comic Opera Cops”.

Bryan Burrough

Over this mess Hoover presided, promoting his favourites and firing off furious memos when they screwed up. After a debacle characterised by bungling and inefficiency, Hoover and the bureau somehow emerged from the war on crime as national heroes. Since the idea of a national law enforcement body was new, Hoover made up the rules as he went along, giving his agents powers undreamed of by state police.

America is still dealing with the legacy of that initial rush of power, witnessed by the latest corruption trials involving FBI agents’ handling of “top-echelon” informers. The FBI comes in for further battering from a man whose life the bureau probably saved – more than once.

Henry Hill, the turncoat mobster from Queens, has emerged from long years hiding from his foes in distant parts of rural America to publish an account of life in the witness protection programme. Hill’s early criminal life is portrayed in what is probably the best film ever made about the mafia, Goodfellas, and now that he is, in a manner of speaking, a movie star, his old wiseguy manner fairly bursts out publc him.



Review: Public Enemies, Gangsters and Goodfellas | Books | The Guardian

He never misses an opportunity to point out how the FBI “bozos” failed to follow up on his leads, or got to a crime scene after the mob had already cleaned it.

Unable to adjust to life as a “schmook” “Stand in line at a grocery store? He would keep them waiting for hours when they had a plane burrouyh catch, he got drunk and divulged his real identity to people he had only just met. Meanwhile, the FBI, dependent on Hill’s testimony for a whole series of trials, was forced to indulge his vices and demands.

Gangsters and Goodfellas takes up the story after Hill turned himself over to the FBI, but revisits much of the territory covered by the first book. It does offer an alarming glimpse of life in the programme, and the dark burrrough of the soul that is provoked by turning in your old pals.

Then there is the sartorial problem: A lifelong criminal who accepts protection in return for giving evidence does so under the condition that he lives a blameless life. Although we know this is seldom the case, Hill abused the system to extremes: In his new incarnation as Joe Shmoe out there in Hicksville USA, the former mobster led the same narcotics-crazed criminal life he did back in Queens, only in different clothes.

As outlaws go, Hill has given us some marvellous entertainment, but in this account of his civilian unravelling, he is drug-dazed, self-pitying and fatally flawed. History books Biography books Oublic education Goodfellas reviews.