A fictionalized tale about Pat Crowe, whose real-life abduction of an affluent Nebraskan’s son was the first successful kidnapping for ransom in the U.S.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Crowe, down on his luck after failing at business and marriage, kidnaps the son of wealthy Edward Cudahy, who briefly employed Crowe in his stockyards. Told from the perspective of an elderly Crowe, “near ruin” in 1939, Hilleman’s action-packed debut tracks the loquacious outlaw from his earnest beginnings to his descent into crime and to his trial, during which his lawyer exploits populist fervor to portray his client as a latter-day Robin Hood. (Crowe’s crime would go on to inspire copycats, including the abduction of the Lindbergh baby.) The novel is nicely structured—chapters alternate between the kidnapping and its aftermath and a rich back story—and Crowe’s remembrances of his five wild years on the run are especially fun, with memorable scenes set everywhere from a cantina in Arizona to South Africa during the Second Boer War. The supporting cast is pleasingly despicable, including Pat’s hapless accomplice, Billy, and an assortment of scoundrels on both sides of the law. The attention to historical detail is illuminating throughout. Hilleman runs into some trouble during Crowe’s trial, spending too much time on lengthy courtroom exchanges, draining the narrative of some well-earned momentum. And while Hilleman addresses issues of class, the story never quite elevates itself past exuberant adventure tale. But elevation can be overrated: as Crowe’s story proves, sometimes the best view is from the ground floor.
A bit slow going toward the end, but for readers looking for a diverting escape into the Wild (mid-) West, this one’s a winner.