Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, Penguin Press, 570 pages, $27.95.
What an electrifying moment it must have been when Bryan Burrough made the discovery that was the genesis for this ceaselessly exciting book. During one two-year period, some of the most notorious -- and most colorfully named -- criminals in American history were all on the loose, creating havoc and diversion in a Depression-addled nation. Baby Face Nelson (a psychopath), Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde (essentially two-bitters rescued from obscurity by Hollywood), the Barker-Karpis Gang and, John Dillinger -- the most charismatic and resourceful of them all -- simultaneously and sometimes in combination, cut a violent swath across the middle of America, staging bank robberies, kidnappings and hold-ups, before escaping, often in a fusillade of bullets from submachine guns.
Arrayed against these murderous desperadoes were local police squads -- often corrupt and geographically constrained -- and a brand new national crime-fighting federal force known as the FBI under the obsessive, ambitious J. Edgar Hoover. Relying on recently opened FBI records, Burrough shows that the agency then more resembled the Keystone Kops than the seemingly (before 9 / 11 anyway) omnipotent force it was to become. At the beginning, its agents didn't know how to investigate or even, in many cases, how to shoot guns. In most spectacular ways, the FBI and other law enforcers found themselves overmatched, outwitted, embarrassed, and sometimes dead. (Dillinger's escape from jail using a wooden gun did not raise public confidence.)
But, by the end of that two-year period, all of those Public Enemies ended up either in graves or in prison. Drenched in blood, its own agents' included, the FBI came of age.