(Once again, a word from our crime/noir genre specialist Garrett Kenyon. -- Levi)
Christmas is the perfect time for true crime. You have to deal with members of the family you only see once a year, eat dry turkey and drink poxy eggnog, and pretend to be excited about the new shirt you’ll be returning next week. All this while dealing with a gaggle of kids excited about an overweight, glorified second-story man who’ll be reverse-burglarizing your home when the lights go out.
If you’re like me, and you’d rather hear a clip full of shell casings from a silenced .22 hitting the ground than the sound of jingle bells -- these books should help get you through the holiday celebration and winter of discontent beyond. Put ‘em on your list and pass it along with a threatening stare and some egregious knuckle-cracking and soon you’ll be reading about some of the most engaging bad men and women who ever lived.
1. Herbert Asbury - The Gangs of New York (1928), The Barbary Coast (1933), The French Quarter (1936) and Gem of the Prairie (1940)
Asbury described his work best when he labeled it “an informal history of the underworld.” Each book describes the seedy underbelly of a different city (New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Chicago, respectively) from the 19th to the early 20th century, introducing readers to the gangsters, crooked cops, lowlife politicians, cut-throat streetwalkers and punch drunk thugs who laid the foundations of what we now so euphemistically call “the game.” And while their various schemes might seem passé compared to today’s high-tech criminals, the old-timey villains had a certain panache that today’s average skell could never muster. Asbury records all the lurid details in the purple-prose style that was so popular at the time, making either four of these books a damned fun read.
I recommend starting with Gangs of New York*. Asbury acts as a genial guide, leading you confidently into notorious slums like the Bowery and Five Points, where you’ll pass through Murderer’s Alley for a tour of the Old Brewery, a den of vice and depravity unequaled in American history; spend time in blind pigs and dancehalls with names like The Bucket of Blood and McGurk’s Suicide Hall; and meet men like Monk Eastman, Bill the Butcher, Baboon Connolly and a couple hundred more colorfully-named thugs who’ll make the bubble-coated gangsters currently hanging out on your block look like powdery-bottomed prep-school boys.
*Which has very little to do with Scorsese’s film.
2. Jack Black - You Can’t Win (1926)
This little-known book gets my enthusiastic vote for the best autobiography ever. It’s the story of introspective hobo and itinerant lowlife Jack Black, who falls in with some old school bindle stiffs as a boy and spends the rest of his life riding trains back and forth across Gilded Age America. On his travels, Jack robs general stores, jewelry shops and post offices, gets broken out of jail at least three times, becomes addicted to, and then kicks, opium in a Canadian boardinghouse, has run-ins with killers, whores, thieves, fences and cowboys and even Wild West legends like Bat Masterson and Judge Fremont Older. The story is told with a wry, self-deprecating voice that leads you seamlessly from one adventure to the next as Jack grows from a scared runaway to a veteran member of the Johnson family*, mastering the art of survival-by-wit. You Can’t Win was a particular favorite of the Beats. Recent editions feature a foreword by William S. Burroughs, who explains how important this book was as a blueprint for their literature. I recommend You Can’t Win for anyone who can read. It not only offers a glimpse of a post-Civil War America left out of the history books, but it gives you tons of old-timey one-liners like “I’m so broke – if it was raining soup I couldn’t afford a tin spoon!” And who can’t use a few more lines like that in their arsenal?
*Read the book.
3. Edward Bunker - Education of a Felon: A Memoir (2000)
If you still haven’t read Bunker, you’re in for a treat. America’s premier prison writer, Bunker has perfected giving guided tours of the criminal mind. When he leads you inside the dolorous grey walls of the big house, he makes you feel the razor-sharp paranoia that comes from being surrounded by thousands of violent men, all fighting to be king of the jungle. Bunker never reached the level of appreciation he deserved in the States – but the Europeans saw him for what he was – a world-class writer who also happened to be a habitual criminal. In Education we get to see just how he got that way – and what a story it is. Rarely does Golden Era Hollywood come to life in such glorious detail – at least not the grimy side left off the glossy brochures. Try reading this book and not going online immediately to find out the rest of what happened to Bunker – it’s almost impossible.
4. Jay Robert Nash - Bloodletters and Badmen (1972 with revised editions in '92 and '95)
The ultimate encyclopedia of low-down scoundrels. Chronicling America’s villains “from pilgrims to present”, Bloodletters has enough gangsters, serial killers, bank robbers, hitmen, vigilantes, confidence men, black widows, mass murderers and gun slingers to satisfy any outlaw enthusiast. But it’s not the baddies that set this encyclopedia above the rest – it’s the writing. The passages are witty, concise and informative, and Nash has a sharp eye for those little details that bring a story to life. I’ve lost many nights to this book – picking it up in the evening to read a few passages, and not stopping until the birds are chirping and my eyes bleary. One of the best features of Bloodletters is how, at the end of each bad guy’s story, Nash lists the other criminals they crossed paths with during their career. Since the passages are so well written, you feel compelled to go on and read the bios of those criminals. This way, it’s possible to work your way up from the Old West black hats, through the 20’s and 30’s Tommy-gun-toting fedoras and into the crazy-eyed 70’s long-hairs, following an unbroken trail of blood and bad influence from past to present. Bloodletters and Badmen is a crown jewel in any crime lover’s collection.
5. Jeff Guinn - Go Down Together (2008)
If you’re like me, you have a soft spot for the golden-age gangsters – men like Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly, who terrorized Depression-era lawmen and became national heroes for an entire generation of beat-down Americans. But perhaps no characters from the Public Enemy era have garnered as much fascination as Bonnie and Clyde – doomed lovers blazing a one-way path to hell across the Southern States and into the history books. Guinn does an admirable job of looking beyond the legend and making Bonnie and Clyde real people again. Despite the current fashionable view on Bonnie and Clyde (that they were a couple of bloodthirsty, lowlife amateurs), there is a humanity and honor about them that is undeniable. Bonnie was a self-conscious drama queen who fancied herself a poet and preferred to be the center of attention ... but when she had a valid reason to leave Clyde behind (her leg had been literally burnt to a crisp in an automobile accident), she chose to stay with her man until the bitter end they both knew would come shortly. Clyde risked everything to break a man out of jail that he particularly disliked; not because it would get him anything – but because the man had been convicted of a crime he didn’t commit and it was the right thing to do. While they weren’t nearly as talented as Pretty Boy or as charismatic as Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde earned their legend with blood, tears and bullets. Not a bad couple to spend a few days with.
The 5 Other True-Crime Titles I Would Have Added if I Weren’t So Lazy
Lowlife by Luc Sante
The Corner or Homicide by David Simon
American Brutus by Michael Kauffman
The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow
Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed the World by Erik Larson