Christmas Eve, 1969. Willie Sutton, bank robber extraordinaire, is paroled from Attica State Prison in New York. Sixty-eight years old and in poor health, he is a celebrity criminal because he was an artist who chose bank robbery as his canvas. Sutton’s criminal life was the stuff of legend --- some of it true, much of it myth. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton allegedly replied, “Because that is where the money is.” A great line, but he never said it.
J. R. Moehringer’s SUTTON is a fictionalized account of the life of the legendary thief told through his own words as he travels around New York City immediately after his release from prison. The fictional Sutton is met at the prison walls by a newspaper reporter and photographer. While the Christmas meeting did in fact take place, the actual newspaper account was not memorable. Moehringer takes the premise of the interview to a higher level, mixing fact and legend to create a vivid portrait of a master criminal recounting his life in poignant detail to the two newsmen.
"SUTTON is an entertaining and delightful book. In the beginning, you may wonder what is true and what is embellishment, but eventually it becomes irrelevant. Willie Sutton was quite a character, and J. R. Moehringer has captured his spirit on the pages of this novel."
I will confess that Moehringer’s entertaining story forced me to hit the history books to study some biographical details of Sutton’s life. It was my effort to separate fact from fiction. SUTTON mixes fact and legend, and takes some liberty with the life history of this accomplished criminal. Sutton stole millions of dollars throughout his career. Not only was that an extraordinary amount of money in the post World War I and Depression era, it also was a large amount of money when one considers that Sutton spent more than half his adult life incarcerated in prison.
SUTTON recounts his life to the two fictional newsmen as they journey through New York City and its environs. While in prison, Sutton has drawn a map highlighting important locales and events from his life. As he and the reporters visit those locations, Moehringer weaves the contemporary with historical flashbacks to create a book that vividly and dramatically portrays life in 20th-century America. This is a true period work of fiction in the spirit of novels from Mario Puzo and E. L. Doctorow.
Moehringer introduces some real-life characters in SUTTON, which makes the novel an interesting read. In prison, Sutton meets Charles Chapin, a newspaper editor serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife. Actual history is also an important element of the book. During his return to New York City, Sutton marvels at the renovation of Yankee Stadium. It takes just a moment for the reader to realize that the work Sutton describes is a long-ago renovation and not the new Yankee Stadium of this century. His dealings with law enforcement are also placed in important historical context. Sutton lived in the era before the criminal law revolution. He had the scars from police beatings, well-described in the novel, to show for it.
SUTTON is an entertaining and delightful book. In the beginning, you may wonder what is true and what is embellishment, but eventually it becomes irrelevant. Willie Sutton was quite a character, and J. R. Moehringer has captured his spirit on the pages of this novel.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 28, 2012