Gangsters, Swindlers, Killers, and Thieves: The Lives and Crimes of Fifty American Villains
Lawrence Block. Oxford University Press, USA, $30 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-19-516952-2
This engaging anthology from the American National Biography reference series chronicles America's obsession with the outlaw and documents the rise and fall of more than 50 of the country's most infamous rogues. Coverage spans some two centuries of miscreants, from shoemaker Ebenezer Mackintosh, fomenter of the Stamp Act riots, to novelist Gaston Means, German spy and sensationalist detective. Although some infamous wrongdoers, such as Lee Harvey Oswald and Jeffrey Dahmer, are not included, the selection samples most of the great criminal genres. Psychopathic serial killers Ted Bundy and Ed Gein, social bandits Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde, presidential assassins John Wilkes Booth, Charles Guitreau and Leon Czolgosz, and an assortment of Mob statesmen all make appearances. The short, elegantly written biographies, highlighted by color commentary from crime novelist Block, stick mainly to the facts, but include assessments of their subject's status in popular consciousness. This approach illuminates the contrast between the criminals' almost uniformly desperate and defective lives and their glamorized apotheoses in the mass media: 19th-century outlaw John Wesley Hardin, celebrated as a populist folk hero in the eponymous Bob Dylan ballad, was, as Block points out, really a""racist, homicidal sociopath."" The result is an instructive and entertaining browse for students of true crime and cultural mythmaking alike. Photos.
Reviewed on: 04/01/2004