August 09, 2004 12:00 PM

By Bryan Burrough



The names may mean little to readers under 40, but Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly and their cronies created the template for Hollywood gangsters. For 600 days between 1933 and 1934, these flamboyant crooks fascinated America with bank robberies and high-profile kidnappings in what was to be called the Great Crime Wave. On their trail were the G-men of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, known as much for “the crisp parts in their oiled hair,” in Burrough’s words, as their skills in fighting crime. Arguing that over the years characters on both sides of the law have been invested with a “cuddly likeability they did not possess,” the author reconciles reality with myth by offering 550 pages of often minute-by-minute accounts detailing audacious criminal exploits and FBI bungles. From John Dillinger’s prison breaks (including one using a wooden gun) to Bonnie and Clyde’s bullet-riddled deaths (the police leveled 150 shots at them), the true stories that com prise Burrough’s riveting book surpass most novels for attention-grabbing action.

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