Book Reviews

The Criminal Activities of the Depression Era Bank Robbers, Mafia, FBI, Politicians, & Cops
Friedman, Bill
CreateSpace (328 pp.)
$17.99 paperback, $4.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1494958138; January 9, 2014


Friedman (Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition, 2000, etc.) explores the history of Depression-era crime and politics, from Midwestern bank robberies to the Truman White House.

Friedman’s wide-ranging history orbits around one event and the questionable government response: the Kansas City Massacre of 1933, which the FBI blamed on Pretty Boy Floyd, but for which Friedman offers a different explanation. To build his case, Friedman presents the histories of four famous bank robbers—John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Karpis, as well as Floyd—and how Hoover used these criminals to transform his FBI from gunless accountants into a lawless police force. According to Friedman, Hoover established himself as America’s top cop—a “fourth branch of the federal government” whose agents were poorly trained and poorly managed. From this, Friedman moves on to the corruption of Kansas City politics, from the criminal underworld to the Kansas City political machine to the career of Truman and his “mobbed-up” White House. This approach to history makes interesting connections; there’s thematic consistency (crime and politics, political misbehavior, the fight for publicity), but his history sometimes has a fragmented style, particularly when he backs up to fill in readers’ knowledge. Also, while the writing is generally clear and conversational, Friedman puts almost all dates into the endnotes, which sometimes makes the timeline harder to follow. However, those points aside, this fascinating history is full of deep research into lesser-known true crimes and some interesting anecdotes, as when the townspeople of Boley, Okla., turn on the bank robbers. Occasionally, however, interpretations seem strained or hyperbolic, and Friedman’s warranted distaste for Hoover’s machinations sometimes leads him into a hectoring style.

Intriguing, wide-ranging research informed by a confident point of view.


Bookviews by Alan Caruba

Bookviews — April 2014

By Alan Caruba

My Picks of the Month

Living through what many feel is the second Great Depression, anyone who loves history will enjoy Bill Friedman’s All Against the Law ($17.99, $9.99, Old School Histories, softcover available from and all ebook retailers). Based on 47 years of research, it is filled with new information about more than a hundred major crimes committed during the Great Depression era by bank robbers, the Mafia, FBI, politicians, along with the misdeeds of police detectives, prosecutors, and judges. Hard times tend to bring out the worst in people, particularly if they are inclined toward crime in the first place. Many from that era became legendary and include John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, and Alvin Karpis whose partner, Doc Barker, killed lawmen in multiple police escapes. It is also the story of the lawmen that pursued them. The FBI under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover gained fame during this period. Politics during the era is also described where it involved corruption, particularly that of the Kansas Pendergast machine. It makes our current times pale by comparison.

 A monthly report on the best in new fiction and non-fiction books. Alan Caruba is a charter member of the National Book Critics Circle and has been reviewing for more than five decades.