The notorious Sing Sing prison may be the most memorable character in this grim tale of crime and punishment.
Home of the electric chair in which 614 men and women (including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) were executed, it was the setting for James Cagney's famous “last mile” walk in the film Angels with Dirty Faces and several other 1930s B-movies. Goewey, the son, grandson and brother of Sing Sing guards, effectively relates the infamous prison’s lore. He also does a creditable job of re-creating the grimy pre–World War II Hell's Kitchen neighborhood that serves as the story's other major backdrop. It was there, amid the West Side waterfront and nearby tenements, that “Whitey” Riordan and “Patches” Waters grew up, young street toughs whose hardscrabble childhoods seemed inexorably to lead to depressingly brief lives of crime. Riordan was first arrested in 1927, at age 12, and spent much of his life in and out of prison. He later joined neighborhood pal Waters to form the notorious “Shopping Bag Gang,” resulting in their jailing at Sing Sing in 1940 following a string of armed robberies. Unfortunately, Riordan, Waters and their “breakout” partner, another hardened con named Charlie McGale, hardly make for intriguing characters. Small-time hustlers turned career criminals, they never rise above the level of unsavory hoodlum. Moreover, the infamous “crash out” recounted here turns out to be a comedy of errors in which the carefully conceived escape plan collapses even before it begins, leading to the deaths of two police officers. Adding to the anticlimactic feel of the story is the fact that our Sing Sing fugitives were captured within a few miles of the prison only hours after their escape. Oddly, Goewey never provides the names of the police officers who brutally interrogated the captured fugitives, beatings that would have surely warranted a full-scale investigation today. It's also disappointing that he doesn't include any of the numerous photographs that documented the capture and subsequent trial.
A less than compelling crime-doesn't-pay saga.