James Carlos Blake, renowned for his violent novels about notorious historical figures (James "Jimmy the Kid" Youngblood in Under the Skin, William T. "Bloody Bill" Anderson in Wildwood Boys, John Ashley in Red Grass River, etc.), has penned his most commercial work to date: a fictional portrait of the Dillinger Gang through the eyes of John Dillinger's right hand man, Handsome Harry Pierpont. Although comparable in setting to Blake's previous novels most take place between the mid-19th century and the era of Prohibition Handsome Harry is something of a departure for Blake. Underpinning scenes of bank robberies, jailbreaks and bloody shootouts is a surprisingly intimate story of friendship, honor and desperate love. After Dillinger helps to break Pierpont and others out of Michigan City prison by smuggling in guns, Pierpont repays the favor by busting Dillinger out of an Ohio jail and killing the sheriff in the process. With the gang together and their women by their sides, their legendary four-month crime spree across the Midwest begins. Throughout the daring stick-ups and dangerous getaways, there are two constants in Harry's life the unconditional love of his girlfriend Mary and the deep camaraderie of friends like Dillinger and Fat Charley Makley. But with the FBI, the National Guard and police officers all over the country looking for them, their luck is destined to run out.
It's difficult to identify the bad guys in this extraordinarily realistic and brutally graphic novel. Is it the members of the Dillinger Gang, who towards the end of their crime spree were folk heroes whose exploits were cheered by Depression-weary families? Or were the real villains the banking institutions that mercilessly foreclosed on people's homes and businesses as the economy deteriorated? A masterful social commentary on Depression-era America, Blake's latest is as bloody as it is bittersweet. Paul Goat Allen is a freelance editor and writer in Syracuse, New York.