When charming bank robber Willie Sutton is unexpectedly released on the eve of Christmas in 1969, his lawyer negotiates an exclusive interview with an unnamed New York newspaper. While a free man, Sutton will be in “custody” for another for 24 hours while the newspaper gathers his story. His companions are a nervous cub reporter – looking to prove his mettle, and a photographer- who considers himself something of a rebellious free thinker. The reporter is particularly interested in Sutton’s involvement in the killing of Arnold Schuster, the informant whose tip to the police led to Sutton’s final arrest and longest incarceration (twenty years). Reporter wants to skip right to it – but Sutton insists on telling his story chronologically, in his own way, and so he does.
J.R. Moehringer’s Sutton convincingly explores the interior life of a man about whom little is definitively known, while creating a compelling portrait of depression-era New York and its contrast to the novel’s present day in 1969. Moehringer provides two powerful motives which start Sutton on his life of crime. Obsessive young love paves the way for abandonment of conscience in Sutton’s first robbery, but painful poverty and a hatred of banks kept him on a dangerous path long after it was feasible or smart. Sutton is a complex man with a talent for diplomacy, locks and a surprising passion for reading the classics. Sutton is also surprisingly relevant for current times in its reflection on greed, banks, and the ever widening gaps between the haves and have-nots. Sutton himself points out the cyclical nature of bank failures, their inevitable protection by politicians, and how still we consistently rely on the industry. As the characters discuss their own dire circumstances, poverty, and jobless conditions, it was easy to apply their reality to our present one.
Sutton is not the only fascinating persona to grace the pages of this novel as he is surrounded by a bevy of a highly influential criminals and businessmen during his time in jail and out. And as much as Sutton and his cronies lead lives of interest, the cultural and geographical presence of New York and the landmarks Sutton visits with Reporter and Photographer almost steal the show. Moehringer naturally packs the narrative with details of the city and how it has changed over Sutton’s lifetime- it also serves as a fascinating comparison to the New York that exists today.
Moehringer has pieced together a fascinating portrait of the motivations and beginnings of one of the Unites States’ most successful and infamous bank robbers, and the undying love that determined the course of his life. Understanding just why Sutton was so attached to Bess Endner after she inspired a life of crime requires the completion of the novel to fully understand. Sutton also quickly and frequently cuts from past to the present for chats with Reporter and Photographer, and there are a veritable stream of characters constantly referred to only by their role or profession. Moehringer liberally uses this time construct throughout the novel, and it could have been used more sparingly. However, the other satisfying elements of the novel and the resolutions to some of the questions it raises made it worth minor narrative annoyances. The complex psychological portrait of Sutton along with other colorful characterizations, and an ear for dialogue makes this a worthy read for anyone interested in bank robbers, Old New York, and good old-fashioned star-crossed lovers.
Audiobook Thoughts: American actor Dylan Baker narrates, and he does a wonderful job of evoking myriad characters and bringing their voices to life with his seemingly effortless accents. The structure of the novel makes it hard to immediately distinguish past and present, but the reader is able to quickly orient themselves in the action. If given the choice, I’d definitely go with the audio on this one.