- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

What fun it is to run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds. In these pages, we hobnob with villains — some of them quite charming — and vicariously help cops bring them down.

Lawrence Block knows his villains. As a mystery writer of the first rank, he has more than 50 books to his credit. Mr. Block has made crime pay. Here he dips into the populous volumes of the American National Biography (also from Oxford University Press), and introduces each miscreant with delicious gusto.

And a wildly disparate bunch they are. A few — mercifully few — are monsters, creepy serial killers with various scary compulsions, not the sort you want to meet alone at night — nor with a queasy stomach. For example, we have Ed Gein “practicing a hideous taxidermy and … eating portions of his victims.”

Others romp across the wild West with the percussion of horse hooves, dusty outdoorsmen — and outdoors-women — shooting up banks and posses of lawmen, like Eagle Scouts gone very wrong. Yet Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy can take the reader prisoner, captivating us with an almost wholesome charm. Stagecoach robber Black Bart — Charles Boles — never even shot anyone and “didn’t even load his gun.”

Some of these antiheroes are boardroom barons, well-tailored, well-spoken con artists, the sort that make you want to sell your stock and store the currency in a mattress. Think Arnold Rothstein, identified as the man who “fixed” the 1918 World Series: Under another name, he even made his way into F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby.”

Mobsters of organized crime? Of course, from hit men (like Meyer Lansky’s Murder Incorporated) up and down, to Al Capone and “the man who organized organized crime,” Lucky Luciano. The complete cast of criminal characters includes people from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as more recent entries.

They represent a rainbow of ethnic groups and economic backgrounds, though only two women make the list — Belle Starr and Bonnie Parker. Photographs of both show their unglamorous side. Why only two? Are women simply more virtuous than men, or are they victims of job discrimination? The editor lets us choose.

Lizzie Borden, with all her fame as a parricidal axe-murderess, does not make these pages. Nor do Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted for giving secrets of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Nor Bruno Hauptmann, executed for the kidnap and killing of the Lindbergh baby, often called the “crime of the century.”

Another so-called “crime of the century” was the murder of young Bobby Franks by two rich, young geniuses, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. It was a murder for the thrill of it and done with arrogant stupidity. It got the headlines in 1924 because of the parents’ wealth — and the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow, who got them off with prison sentences instead of the electric chair.

Loeb was himself killed in prison, but Leopold’s biography shows that rehabilitation is actually possible. He was a model prisoner. During World War II, he volunteered as a human guinea pig — and as a technician — successfully finding a cure for malaria. In 1958 he was paroled, and worked in a hospital for lepers in Puerto Rico, where he died.

John Wilkes Booth is here, as is his fellow assassin and “an accomplished deadbeat,” the barely-remembered Charles Julius Guiteau, who killed President James Garfield. And here we read about a minor thief named John Andrews Murrell, whose legend inspired the mayhem of vigilante raids — but whose criminal career was itself a fraud.

For sheer gall, there was the swindler Gaston B. Means. Mr. Block begins his story this way: “Means got through the First World War as a German spy and propagandist. Then he latched onto a rich widow, stole a good portion of her inheritance, and shot her in the head. Then he turned bad.”

My favorite outlaw in this book is a distant cousin of mine, Jesse James. His father, the Rev. Robert James, a Baptist minister and a founder of William Jewell College, was the brother of my great-great-grandfather. So family folklore has charitably styled Cousin Jesse as a Missouri Robin Hood. Mr. Block lifts a skeptical eyebrow on that one. “Jesse was no Robin Hood,” he says, “but then I don’t suppose Robin Hood was either.”

Family folklore has it that, between bank jobs, Jesse would sometimes travel to New York to attend Shakespeare plays, registering in hotels as “Mr. Nottingham from Sherwood, England.” Such capers would have been in character. As his biography here tells it, Jesse James sometimes wrote press releases giving the “true” facts of his train robberies. And often he corresponded with journalists and politicians.

He was, of course, a Confederate Democrat, and in 1876 his fellow partisans very nearly got the Missouri legislature to pass an amnesty for Jesse and his brother Frank. “I will not say pardon,” wrote Jesse to the Kansas City Times, “for we have done nothing to be pardoned for.”

An especially nasty bank robbery ended that political ploy, and later still, Jesse was shot in the back while straightening a picture. Reporting on his death, the New York Daily Graphic called my cousin Jesse “the most renowned murderer and robber of his age.”

According to my information, no other of my James cousins has had such a criminal career. Nor have we produced any other Baptist ministers. Though I must confess, we have produced a scattering of Democrats.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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