At least Forrest Gump didn’t take credit….

25684664What an odd book. The description indicated that it was a tale of 20’s and 30’s crimefighting with a supernatural element … It’s good to stress that last part going in, I think, because otherwise it might cause disorientation. Because, to quote the note at the end of the book: “For reasons of the plot, massive liberties have been taken with the historic record”…

I have problems with that. Okay, so dates were changed to make things fit better, and of course the fictional Agent Harry Beirce was shoehorned in all over the place. I was curious, though, about who the real people were whose thunder this fictional character was stealing, and that’s when I found out how massive the liberties, or mistakes, were. Now, I mean, granted, I’m only going off Wikipedia and whatever personal websites I stumbled across in cursory searches, but … the kidnap victim featured, Urschel, was taken in a wildly different situation than described here (kidnapped with a friend during a bridge game in front of their wives, not alone on his porch), and was interviewed by Special Agent Gus T. Jones, who was apparently kind of a big deal but never mentioned in this narrative. Discovering this departure from the facts made me go looking for others. I always find trouble this way…

I found small things, such as the fact that the man who attempted to kill Roosevelt (or not), Giuseppe Zangara, did not go to ” Miami and buy the Colt .32 automatic”, he paid $8 at a local pawn shop for a .32 caliber made by the US Revolver Co. And there were larger things, like the fact that Clyde Barrow did not kill that guard; escapee Joe Palmer did. And Bonnie & Clyde did not free just their two friends, but in the end five prisoners escaped. What is going on here? Is it ignorance, or streamlining reality for the sake of a not-great story?

And see, there’s the main problem I had. If you’re going to take major liberties with history – which is made up of real people’s lives, people who may still be alive, or whose children and grandchildren are – then there had better be a damned good reason, a damned good story at the heart of it. This wasn’t bad – it was mostly readable, and held my interest, if for no other reason than that I was baffled about what was actually going on – but in my book the story wasn’t powerful enough, big enough, good enough to excuse the liberties.

There were other things I questioned: the family of a murdered man being part of the long line of mourners waiting to see him as he lay in state – why would the family be in line? A priest is shown giving full Catholic rites for the murderer – not likely, especially in 1935. And now I’m finding that the whole Pretty Boy Floyd thread was apparently a total fantasy. I did feel like I learned (or relearned) a bit about Dillinger and Huey Long and Hoover … the problem is, I’m trying my best to forget it all as fast as possible, because I don’t trust anything in the book. (Did Ana Cumpana? actually double-cross the the agents escorting her at a baseball game, walk straight out of their hands while they were shooting the breeze, and before they even noticed give Dillinger a warning? I can’t find anything about that, and I hope it’s pure fiction. If not, it was not one of the law enforcement’s finer hours.)

Okay, so this isn’t a history book. I won’t refer to this any details of this book if I ever get on Jeopardy (and God help the author if I screw up an answer because he screwed with history). (No, seriously. Not joking.) But I’ll put that aside. The point of the book is Agent Harry Bierce, who is, shall we say, unusual. If this is ever made into a film he should be played by Tom Hanks, because they could almost just take footage straight out of Forrest Gump; he was everywhere.

How is he unusual? By the end of the book I had a pretty solid guess, but beyond that, I don’t know. Because I wasn’t told. (See, the whole “show don’t tell” thing only works if the showing is effective. If it’s not, and you don’t tell the reader anything, the reader just winds up baffled.) I’m assuming he joins the ranks of the unkillable, like the two gentlemen in the (quickly-canceled) tv shows New Amsterdam and Forever. When Bierce is shot, he recovers with extraordinary speed. And his doctor says “Much of this recovery seems due to a remarkable immune system.” Except … he was shot. Even the most remarkable immune system is never going to mean immunity to bullets. Is he what I think he is? What’s the deal with his lady friend and her alarming parties and even more alarming husband (and extremely alarming pigs)? What am I supposed to infer from the references to Arkham? (Not being a fan of Lovecraft, I had to look it up. (I was pretty sure it wasn’t referring to Batman.) The biggest question I have is, why am I still asking these questions after finishing the book? Was I supposed to be picking up clues as I went along and figuring it out? What clues? Did I miss ninety percent of them? Or is it all supposed to have whetted my curiosity to prepare for a sequel? (Harry Bierce conquers the Nazis! AND the Italians and Japanese!)

I didn’t hate this. I didn’t like it much, but I didn’t hate it. I did hate the spelling errors, which I pray can be put down to the whole uncorrected proof thing, but … “she handed him the reigns”; “if they tow the line”; “Hoover had made discrete inquiries”…. Please let this be because it’s an uncorrected proof… (This was received from Netgalley for an honest review.)

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