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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'Sutton': conscience-ridden bank robber becomes a national hero

J.R Moehringer's "Sutton," a historical novel based on the life of bank robber Willie Sutton, is a delightful, dead-on imagining of the legendary bank robber's life. Moehringer will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

J.R. Moehringer

The author of "Sutton" will appear at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or
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by J.R. Moehringer

Hyperion, 334 pp., $27.99

If you were born in the first half of the last century, you likely know the legend of Willie Sutton, one of the most prolific and daring bank robbers in American history. One thing is certain after reading J.R. Moehringer's delightful historical novel based on Sutton's life: they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Sutton pulled off more than a dozen meticulously planned robberies in the New York City area, and he escaped from some of the country's highest-security prisons. For his crimes, Willie lived more than half his life in prison, where he spent his time reading Dante, Shakespeare, Pound and other literary greats. When he wasn't reading, he was plotting his escapes.

Because he robbed banks that he thought were unscrupulous and he eschewed violence, never shooting or killing anyone in his many heists, Sutton became a national folk hero.

The book opens on Christmas Eve 1969, the day of Willie's early release from Attica prison. His discharge causes a media frenzy, but only one reporter is granted an interview, and they spend the next day visiting scenes of Willie's crimes and adventures in and around New York. After 17 years in prison, Willie, age 68, has landed in the strange new world: the counterculture of the late 1960s with its long hair, miniskirts and hippie slang.

Moehringer, who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing at the Los Angeles Times and is the author of the memoir "The Tender Bar," adroitly alternates past and present to reconstruct the story of Willie's life. Willie is born into a poor Irish-American family in Brooklyn, and as a boy he is brutally beaten by his older brothers. He turns to crime at an early age. As a young man, he falls hard in love with Bess, but because she is from a rich, prominent family, their romance is doomed to fail.

Willie turns all of his attention to robbing banks. His ingenious schemes and his impersonations of policemen, bank guards and delivery men capture the imagination of the public and earn himself the moniker "Willie the Actor." Police refer to him as the "Babe Ruth of Robbers."

It's easy to romanticize this kind of criminal, but the reader's sense of right and wrong is left intact because Willie more than pays his dues with his many years of confinement and the cruel treatment he endures, especially after his escapes and escape attempts. The thrill of thievery is balanced by the abject misery of incarceration. Prison leaves him broken, and at times, nearly insane.

The characterizations and dialogue — clipped, noir, corny at times — seem just right.

In one scene, as Willie and the reporter get into the car, off to another destination in Willie's life story, they talk about who will sit where.

"Reporter smiles. Okay, Mr. Sutton. I'm happy to ride shotgun.

"Sutton clears his throat. Riding shotgun — civilians use the term so blithely. He's actually driven countless times with men riding shotgun holding shotguns. There's nothing blithe about it."

There's much to admire and relish about this first novel.

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