If you’re anything like I was going into this work of historical fiction, you have absolutely no idea who Willie “the Actor” Sutton is. The basic facts are thus: he was a successful bank robber who had a knack for getting caught. He also had a knack for escaping prison: he broke out of several during the time he spent — which amounted to half his adult life — in jail. He also, because he was robbing banks in the 1920s and 1930s, became a bit of a folk hero, sticking it to “the man.”
But, because of the many contradictions in his two autobiographies and the one interview he gave, no one really knows who Willie Sutton really was.
All this is ripe ground for Moehringer to explore the motivations behind Sutton’s many criminal exploits. Which means what started out as a basic work of historical fiction becomes more of a psychological exploration: Did Sutton rob banks because his older brothers beat him? Or because he grew up in Irish at a time when the Irish were despised? Or because no one but the mob bosses would cut him a break?
It’s all these, but Moehringer focuses on what he imagines was Sutton’s primary motivation: the love of a woman who was out of his league. He falls in love with her, but is thwarted in his desire to marry her: being Irish, Catholic, and working class, he’s just not good enough for her. So when she suggests that they rob her father’s vaults to get the money they need to elope, Sutton jumps at the chance. And gets caught, paying the price for a crime of passion.
Thus the criminal mastermind is born.
This is a fascinating introspective work. As we travel gracefully through time, using a 1969 interview as the framework, we come to realize that everything is more complicated than it seems, that nothing is black and white, and that perhaps the choices one makes in one’s life have a lot to do with the people one meets.
Rated: High for language (multiple, many, extravagant uses of the f-word; plus others).