Got Clean Away in a Stolen Car*

gangsters-and-mobstersAs this is posted, it’s the 83rd anniversary of two events. One is the escape of John Dillinger from an Ohio jail. The other is the incarceration of George Francis Barnes, AKA Machine Gun Kelly. They were by no means the only gangsters out there. Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd, and Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel are just a few of the other infamous names of the times. Some of these people were members of criminal gangs and groups. Others were ‘lone wolves.’

Either way, these people were, first and last, criminals. Many of them committed horrible acts, and certainly sanctioned others that they didn’t commit themselves. And yet, they have a certain fascination. Gangsters and mobsters figure in a lot of films, TV shows and series, and books. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the crime novels where gangsters figure into the plot. But here are a few to show you what I mean.

Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid, which takes place in early-1930’s Oklahoma, features Jack Belmont. He’s always been a ‘wrong ‘un,’ as the saying goes, and now dreams of being a powerful outlaw, just like Pretty Boy Floyd. If he’s going to do that, though, he’ll have to get past Deputy U.S. Marshal Carlos ‘Carl’ Webster. He’s as determined to put gangsters like Belmont behind bars as Belmont is to be at the top of the ‘most wanted’ list. For each man, it’s as much a personal matter as it is anything else, and it’s interesting to look at the culture that made folk heroes of so many of the outlaws of that time.

Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs tells the story of the Franco family. In 1974, an unnamed art restorer happens to be in the Swiss Alps looking at some of the frescoes at a monastery there. He meets an old man who lives in the care home attached to the monastery, and gets an irresistible offer. The old man promises to tell him a story – a good story – if he’ll tape record that story. The art restorer agrees, and the old man begins. The story really starts at the turn of the 20th Century, when Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family immigrate from Italy. Franco is, by trade, a shoemaker, and soon sets up his business in New York City. He does well, and the family prospers. But then he starts drinking too much. One night, he gets into a bar fight and ends up killing Luigi Lupo, son of a powerful New York gangster. Lupo’s father finds out who killed his son and puts a curse on the Franco family. According to the curse, Franco’s three sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age as Luigi Lupo was when he was killed. The storyteller than goes on to recount what happened to the three sons, how the curse impacted them, and how it led to the family’s current situation, years later. As the story is told, we learn about the mobsters and gangsters of that era, and how the various criminal families operated.

Before the days of Fidel Castro, Havana was a watering hole for many mobsters and gangsters, and Mayra Montero’s Dancing to ‘Almendra’ uses that context. Joaquín Porrata is a fledgling reporter for Diario de la Marina, accustomed to doing ‘fluff’ stories like interviewing actors. One day, he hears of the murder of Umberto Anastasia, the Great Executioner of Murder, Inc. Anastasia was killed in New York City, but the Mob’s reach is far, and it’s believed he was killed because he was interfering too much with some powerful bosses’ Havana interests. Porrata is taken off the Anastasia story and instead, is told to follow up on a story about a hippo who escaped from a zoo and was found killed. When Porrata discovers that the hippo was ‘a message for Anastasia,’ he is convinced that there’s a connection between Havana’s gangster activity and what happened in New York. The closer he gets to the truth, though, the harder some very powerful people try to shut him up.

Today’s outlaws, gangsters and mobsters are arguably cut from a different bolt, as the saying goes. But they’re still a force to be reckoned with. We see a bit of what they’re like in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. In that novel, ex-pat Americans Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move to a small town in Normandy. They’re hoping to settle in and start new lives, but it’s not going to be easy. For one thing, there’s the culture shock. For another, Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against fellow mobsters. In return, he and his family were placed in the US’ Federal Witness Protection Program. When word of the Manzonis’ gets back to New Jersey, the ‘Blakes’ are in serious trouble… There are other authors, too, such as Mario Puzo and Richard Condon, who’ve written books detailing life in the Mob.

What do you folks think? Is there a certain mystique about the gangsters and outlaws of bygone days? If so, why do you think that is? Whether ‘lone wolves’ or members of groups, those gangsters certainly made names for themselves. And they’ve found quite a place in crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mitch Murray and Peter Callander’s The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde.


Filed under Apostolos Doxiadis, Elmore Leonard, Mario Puzo, Mayra Montero, Richard Condon, Tonino Benacquista

22 responses to “Got Clean Away in a Stolen Car*

  1. A.M. Pietroschek

    I once shared in some of the fascination, yet it was like the saying from Erich Fromm that once leaving a state-of-being, which needs certain illusions/delusions, one can learn to get rid of them.

    To me it was the dark version of looking for the greatness and inspiration I considered myself to be lacking. On the opposite side, the character traits and ideas gone beneficial – I learned to embody my lil copy of ’em, as good, as I can time and time again.

    A wonderful day or evening to you, Margot.

  2. Your posting now has me wondering about the connections: Depression era, gangsters, and hard-boiled fiction. Clearly one leads to the next which leads to the next. Moreover, Black Mask magazine needs to be remembered because of all the gangster-types in the many hard-boiled stories in their pages. And here is another theory: What is it, I wonder, about tough economic times that contributes to the rise of and the fascination with gangsters?

    • You raise a very interesting question, Tim. I think there were probably plenty of people who saw those gangsters as folk heroes because they were able to ‘beat the system’ and get money. And when that very system failed so many people, it makes sense that they would be fascinated by those who went around it. Thanks, too, for mentioning Black Mask – a real timepiece.

  3. To be honest Margot I’ve never quite got the appeal of the mobsters even taking into account that these types of criminals have changed over time – in my mind they were still villains and aside from their code, I see nothing to admire about them – I tend to avoid books featuring them.

    • You’re not alone, Cleo. Underneath that dapper-looking exterior some of them had, they were violent criminals. And most likely, they were more violent than they’re depicted in some films. I can understand why you aren’t fond of books featuring gangsters.

  4. I don’t read many gangster novels, which is strange really since I love the old gangster movies. Don’t really know why it should be, but I do find the old prohibition era gangsters appealing (in the fictional sense!) whereas I’m completely turned off by any books or films about contemporary gangsters. Maybe it’s because the old gangsters were filtered through the Hollywood codes of what was acceptable at that time – I’m sure in reality they were just as sordid as today’s gangsters, but somehow they seem more romantic. Of course, being played by Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney helps…

    • Haha! That’s certainly true, FictionFan! And I think you have a very strong point about the way those people were portrayed by Hollywood. My guess is, they were depicted as a lot more appealing and romantic than they were in real life. And it’s interesting to look at the way gangsters are portrayed in modern films and books. There’s a push to make stories realistic and authentic. And in the case of gangsters, that means that they’re not generally shown in a very positive light.

  5. I love your blog! Your writing is fantastic and refreshing! Looking forward to future posts!!

  6. Margot: I raced through The Godfather by Mario Puzo. He described an exotic world of rough tough men mostly living by a code of honor. Twisted as their morality was the Mafia were fascinating characters. Readers have yet to tire of Nazi villains. I expect the Mob will be with us always.

    • You have a point, Bill. I think Mob characters will be with us always, too. They were, indeed fascinating to many people, despite the things that they did. And I agree with you about Puzo; the man could write, and his topic was interesting.

  7. Col

    I find gangsters or criminals more interesting to read about than straight types if I’m honest. Most of the time!

  8. An interesting post to ponder, Margot. Gangsters certainly do have a mystique about them. I wonder is it due to what we actually know about them (true facts) or is it from the tantalizing tales we’ve read throughout the years that gives them that appeal? Do we look at them differently than people did during their time and if it’s the same did the hype come from newspaper accounts of their actions? Gangsters do intrigue us.

    • Oh, you ask an interesting question, Mason. I wonder if we are intrigued by what we’ve seen in films and so on, that was filtered through the ‘Hollywood lens,’ or whether we impacted by the facts we’ve learned. And it would be interesting to compare what people think now of those gangsters with what people thought at the time. Terrific ‘food for thought,’ for which thanks.

  9. Great theme post, Margot. I can easily recollect a few such gangsters and outlaws (including heroes) in Western fiction and film, such as the Reno gang, Jesse James, and Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. I find it all quite fascinating, especially the idealistic portrayal of even anti-heroes.

    • You make an interesting comparison, Prashant, between those Western (anti)heroes and some of the gangsters and outlaws. Sometimes they are portrayed sympathetically, and as you say, idealistically. And a lot of people are fascinated by them. Thanks for the kind words.

  10. tracybham

    I find mobsters and gangsters interesting, but it does depend on how the book is written. I look forward to reading THE HOT KID by Elmore Leonard. Mayra Montero’s book set in Cuba sound good too.

    • Elmore Leonard wrote such great novels, I think. And you’re right, Tracy; if an author is going to create mobsters, gangsters and so on, it does have to be done really well. And I think it can be tricky. Leonard did it well. And I’ll be interested in what you think of that book and of the Montero.

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