Friedman (Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition, 2000, etc.) explores the history of Depression-era crime and politics, from Midwestern bank robberies to the Truman White House.
Friedman’s wide-ranging history orbits around one event and the questionable government response: the Kansas City Massacre of 1933, which the FBI blamed on Pretty Boy Floyd, but for which Friedman offers a different explanation. To build his case, Friedman presents the histories of four famous bank robbers—John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis, as well as Floyd—and how Hoover used these criminals to transform his FBI from gunless accountants into a lawless police force. According to Friedman, Hoover established himself as America’s top cop—a “fourth branch of the federal government” whose agents were poorly trained and poorly managed. From this, Friedman moves on to the corruption of Kansas City politics, from the criminal underworld to the Kansas City political machine to the career of Truman and his “mobbed-up” White House. This approach to history makes interesting connections; there’s thematic consistency (crime and politics, political misbehavior, the fight for publicity), but his history sometimes has a fragmented style, particularly when he backs up to fill in readers’ knowledge. Also, while the writing is generally clear and conversational, Friedman puts almost all dates into the endnotes, which sometimes makes the timeline harder to follow. However, those points aside, this fascinating history is full of deep research into lesser-known true crimes and some interesting anecdotes, as when the townspeople of Boley, Okla., turn on the bank robbers. Occasionally, however, interpretations seem strained or hyperbolic, and Friedman’s warranted distaste for Hoover’s machinations sometimes leads him into a hectoring style.
Intriguing, wide-ranging research informed by a confident point of view.