J.R. Moehringer’s Novel About Willie Sutton Deserves to be Better Known (by Kevin Mims)

Kevin Mims is a short story writer, essayist, and, often, a book reviewer for this site. This time he reviews a title that belongs to a category we don’t often see, the nonfiction novel. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was the first well-known example of this type of book, in which novelistic techniques are used to convey a story about real people and events. It sounds, from Kevin’s assessment, as if the 2012 novel Sutton is one no fan of this genre should miss. See what you think.—Janet Hutchings

With true crime currently enjoying a wave of popularity, fictionalized accounts of true crimes may also be of increased interest to readers of this blog. One such book is J.R. Moehringer’s 2012 novel Sutton, a fictionalized account of the life and career of American bank robber Willie Sutton, who lived from 1901 until 1980. This novel is, essentially, a tale being told by Sutton himself on Christmas Day, 1969, to two New York journalists (a reporter and a photographer). Sutton had been incarcerated in a New York prison (Attica) for seventeen years at that point but, because he was believed to be in ill health, had been granted a Christmas Eve release by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. The next day, the two reporters pick up Sutton in a battered Dodge Polara. He has promised their newspaper an exclusive story in exchange for financial consideration. Sutton hands the two journalists a map of New York City on which he has circled roughly fifteen locations. These locations mark significant events in his life—banks and jewelry-store robberies he participated in, prison breakouts, romantic liaisons, brief stints of lawful employment, etc. He instructs the men to drive to each location and he will tell the story of his life while the photographer snaps photos of what the spot looks like now. This is a somewhat gimmicky narrative strategy, but it works.

Despite having little formal education, Willie Sutton was a rapacious reader and a decent writer. According to Moehringer, he spent many years working on a novel called The Statue in the Park, but was never able to get it published. He did publish two (highly inaccurate) memoirs in his lifetime. The first of these, Smooth and Deadly, appeared in 1953. The second, Where The Money Was, came out in 1976. They were written for a quick buck with the help of ghostwriters. After reading Sutton, I couldn’t help wondering how the book might have been treated—by reviewers and ordinary readers—if it actually had been written by Sutton and published some time in the 1970s. In my estimation, it would have competed with E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Judith Rossner’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar for the title of most-talked-about crime book of the decade. All three are set almost exclusively in and around New York City. All three incorporate a great deal of actual history in their narratives. Curiously, Sutton is probably the least violent of the three novels, because Willie Sutton deplored violence and never fired a gun during any of his robberies. J.R. Moehringer is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and the author of a highly regarded memoir called The Tender Bar (George Clooney directed a 2021 film based on the memoir for Amazon Studios). Sutton was his first and, to date, only novel. And it is a surprisingly beautiful piece of work. It is filled with history, humor, hardship, and heartbreak. It contains scenes of great beauty and scenes of pure horror. An episode in which Sutton tries to swim his way to freedom through a prison sewer pipe was so disturbing that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get it out of my head. An interlude in which Sutton finds employment tending the gardens of a fabulously wealthy New Yorker is filled with descriptions of lush foliage and dazzling flowers that wouldn’t have been out of place in a love story (which Sutton, essentially, is).

Upon its publication in 2012, Moehringer’s novel received plenty of complimentary reviews. But I don’t think it got anywhere near the attention it deserved. In my estimation, Moehringer’s book is every bit as good a “true crime novel” as Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.

One of the most interesting sections of the book describes the time that Willie and several confederates escaped from Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. When the confederates need some sort of device to aid in their escape plan they always turn to a fellow convict named Kliney, who has a knack for acquiring the unobtainable. Willie notes that, “If you gave Kliney two weeks he could get you Ava Gardner.” This is almost certainly a nod to the Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” whose narrator says, “Yeah, I’m a regular Nieman-Marcus. And so when Andy Dufresne came to me in 1949 and asked if I could smuggle Rita Hayworth into the prison for him, I said it would be no problem at all.”

Although Sutton is more of a crime novel than a mystery, there is at least one great mystery at the center of Moehringer’s novel. In February of 1952, Sutton was recognized on a New York City subway car by a fellow passenger, twenty-four-year-old Arnold Schuster. Sutton, having again escaped from jail, was in the midst of one of his robbery sprees and was listed among the FBI’s ten most wanted criminals. When Sutton got off the subway car, Schuster followed him. Eventually he was able to inform the police of Sutton’s whereabouts and Sutton was arrested and jailed for the final time. By this point Sutton was a folk hero. Even the cops who arrested him asked if they could pose for a photo with him. New Yorkers would stand outside the police station and chant Willie’s name. But when a local paper wrote an article publicizing Arnold Schuster’s role in Willie’s capture, tragedy soon ensued. Schuster was a likeable young man, part of a close-knit Jewish family in Brooklyn, and engaged to be married. But a few weeks after the newspaper story was published, Schuster was executed gangland style near his Brooklyn home one night. It was long assumed that Sutton must have put out a contract on Schuster as payback for turning him in to the police. From the very first pages of Moehringer’s novel, the two journalists are trying to get Sutton to talk about Schuster’s murder, but Sutton refuses to tell his story out of chronological order. We learn about Schuster’s death early on, and a get a few teasing references to it, but not until the end does Willie go into detail about it, finally wrapping up that particular mystery.

So there you have it, my assessment of an underappreciated 2012 crime novel that would probably by now have been deemed a classic had it been published in the nineteen seventies and written by the actual Willie Sutton. As it is, the book seems to be languishing in relative obscurity. Perhaps that is because, by the time it was published, few Americans even remembered the events it describes. Timing, they say, is everything. And nobody knew that better than Willie Sutton.

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1 Response to J.R. Moehringer’s Novel About Willie Sutton Deserves to be Better Known (by Kevin Mims)

  1. Thanks for this, Kevin. I intend to read Sutton due to your recommendation. As it happens, I just finished the first draft of a nonfiction short story about a crime from the 1920’s.

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