Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Willie Sutton began his career of crime in the 1920s, made a lot of money but never managed to keep it, and when he died aged 79 in 1980 had spent over half his life in prison. Based on the number of robberies he performed, alone or with a gang, he became infamous, and an irregular head-liner in the newspapers.
Sadly, he was probably never asked why he robbed banks, so his reply “Because that’s where the money is” that features in so many Dictionaries of Quotations is an urban myth or reporter’s invention. In the decade before he died he will have heard his other claim to fame become the by-line to the popular TV series “Alias Smith And Jones” – “never shot anyone”. Alas, his mafia connections were so annoyed at his last arrest in 1951 that they murdered the civilian who recognised him in the subway. J R Moehringer’s Willie Sutton would tell you that that was another unfortunate case in which he was a victim himself. But J R Moehringer’s Willie Sutton would tell you many things, just not everything.
Sutton begins with Sutton’s release from prison in December 1969, luckily this time with a newspaper contract for his story; earlier releases had been with ten bucks in his pocket, no job to go to, and desperate returns to criminality. On Christmas Day “the reporter” and “the photographer” take him to his old haunts: they want a quick trip, but Sutton has a map and an itinerary that travels to the edges of the city and back again, a chronological re-visiting of the places in his life: the slum where he was beaten up by his brothers; the house where his up-market girlfriend persuaded him that robbing her father was no crime; the court house that let him off with probation but gave him a criminal record that ended his chances of regular work; the ball park where he had to throw away as he was arrested the ring that he had been keeping for that girl who had kept his heart, and the police stations where he was third degree’d for his confession.
The robberies receive short-shrift: the prisons in which he was incarcerated, and from which he two or three times managed to escape for short periods, are remembered in much more detail. I suppose you would remember a sewer filled with excrement in which you almost drowned, particularly if that time you discovered it dead-ended.
The prison wardens had huge powers, and Sutton was kept in lightless dungeons for his infractions, but he would read when he could and served as a secretary to at least one prison psychologist. Unfortunately, Sutton seems not to have had a sense of irony. “Do you think I belong here?” Sutton once asked him, when they had been getting along well. The psychologist said he did.
Sutton was released ultimately because his emphysema and damaged leg gave him only a short expectation of life, though he lived another ten years, dying in Florida. His love had come to him at least once, driving the getaway car on one of his prison escapes, but never in his final years. He survived on royalties from his ghost written memoirs, consulting on security for banks, and featuring in a couple of TV commercials for, again, the banks.
That’s J R Moehringer’s Willie Sutton, the one who tells his tale, even if he does not tell it so well that his psychologist does not see through it. Whether Bess, the lost love, ever existed I have no way of knowing; certainly he never mentions the couple of wives he did have, nor the daughter who was born just as he was going to prison, but this Willie Sutton is a cat who walks alone, an invention either of his author or himself. Like some cats you would not want his traces in your garden.
Sutton begins slowly and off-puttingly but improves in the second or third chapters. It is written without quotes around the speech, though I became inured to that. It also took a little while to realise that Willie is an unreliable narrator, let alone witness, but if you like the crime and squalor and history in, say, Once Upon A Time In America then Sutton is one for you.