The ones that Blake excels in, such as 2003‘s “Under the Skin,“ fairly crackle with larger than life anti-hero characters, raucous humor and liberal does of sex and violence. Fans will delight in knowing that he doesnt break stride with his latest, which is set in the Depression-era world where figures like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger caught and held the attention of a despondent nation who came to view them as folk-heroes of sorts.
Here, the focus is on “Handsome“ Harry Pierpont, the self-described leader of the real-life Dillinger Gang of bank robbers, and told from his perspective, as he awaits electrocution in Ohio for the murder of a sheriff, his antics and adventures make for a highly entertaining, if not slightly romanticized read pulled from the annals of American crime.
In the first chapter, “The Joints,“ Blake sets the tone for the action by having Harry introduce the reader to the lure crime has for him:
“It was grand.
Every single time it was grand. I loved the moment when you announce the stickup and everything suddenly goes brighter and sharper and the world seems to spin faster. You show them the gun and say hand it over and there‘s no telling what‘s going to happen in the next tick of the clock.
I always expected somebody to say Not on your life, Mac, and go for his piece, but it never happened not counting the time I told the sheriff to hand over John. It never happened with money. They always handed over the money. That was the easy part. Then you had to get away. That‘s when things sometimes became very intense indeed, and the notion of present moment took on meanings you felt in your blood.
I‘ve never understood how somebody could simply hand it over and leave it at that. If somebody ever stuck a gun in my face and said give me the money, I‘d say sure thing and then the minute the guy took his eyes off me I‘d yank out my piece and pop him. Any man who doesn‘t keep a gun handy to protect himself and what‘s his is a fool. Deeds and titles and bills of sale be damned, nobody really owns anything in this world except what he can keep others from taking away, and I mean robbers, bankers, judges, or government agents.
Even if I didn‘t have a gun on me and somebody tried to hold me up, as soon I saw a chance to jump him I‘d do it. I‘d let him have it with whatever was at hand -- a chair, a bottle, a fork. I‘d go at him fists, feet, and teeth.
You can‘t let a guy rob you without putting up a fight. It isn‘t self-respecting.
Even before I went to the joint for the first time I‘d stolen so many cars I‘d lost count. It was a snap. I swiped my first when I was sixteen -- a spanking new Model T roadster, a nifty little thing. A pal named Eddie Rehnquist and I went rambling in it all over three counties before it somehow ended up in the Wildcat River. After that first one, whenever I needed a car to get somewhere, I‘d pick one out and take it. If I had a date with some special girl I wanted to impress, I‘d grab a Packard or a Buick or a Cadillac, something classy, even though fancy cars were easier for the cops to track down.
Like the Packard I was driving when I had my first close call with a stolen car. It was the same shade of smoky yellow as the hair on the honey snugged up beside me and saying she wished her friends could see her now. Then a cop car came up behind us and turned on its flash. I‘d snatched the Packard a few hours earlier on the other side of town but had been in too much of a hurry to swap the plates. The girl took a gander at the cops and asked me if we were speeding. I said we are now -- and floored the accelerator and we barreled past a stop sign, just barely avoiding a collision...Not that I ever needed a fancy car to get a girl‘s attention. My looks could always do the trick. My mother said that the minute she laid eyes on my newborn self, on my fair hair and baby blues, she knew I‘d never lack for female notice. She was right.“
Harry is a charismatic card of a character, one who views his juvenile crime experiences as preparation for a career as an “independent fundraiser,“ in other words, a stick-up man. He becomes acquainted early on with how to blow a bank heist and serve time, though everything changes once he meets a young Dillinger in a state reformatory. Though Dillinger will become something of a mentor, the two have the makings to be a formidable pair. After Dillinger is paroled, he helps Harry mastermind one of the most infamous prison escapes in U.S. history. Harry ends up having to spring Dillinger after he is jailed again, but the price he pays for doing so comes at a tragic cost.
Before all that plays out, though, there are four gun-blazing months of freedom where Harry, Dillinger, and their three partners - Red, Russell, and Fat Charley- stir fear in the hearts of bank tellers, FBI agents and policemen from Arizona to Florida. Their escapades have all the elements a reader wants and expects, from sassy gun molls and robbery repartee to high-speed chases and back alley betrayals, but there‘s also a very dark undercurrent to the proceedings, especially in the depictions of violence, that can quickly bring one back to earth. In fact, the novel reads much the same way Arthur Penn‘s classic film version of “Bonnie and Clyde“ plays out, with callousness keeping the charm of the characters in check.
Harry‘s ultimate denouement is a confirmation of the old “crime does not pay adage,“ and you know thats the message long before you get there. But in the meantime, if you so choose, settle in, take a trip back in time to an era when criminals actually had an air of nostalgia surrounding them, and let narrator Harry take you on a rip-roaring journey.