Confessions of a Criminal

James Carlos Blake chronicles the fate of Dillinger Gang member Harry Pierpont.

"So many women have bandit hearts." Two pages into James Carlos Blake's Handsome Harry, a death-row nurse tending to Harry Pierpont's bullet-blasted body has just changed his sheets, whispered him a birthday wish and finger-tipped him a kiss. A couple of days later, he'll be electrocuted, but for now, Pierpont takes time to admire the nurse's long legs and green eyes.

"This one," he speculates, "would have joined us in a wink."

Well, truth be told, more than one reader might be tempted, too. In his latest novel, Blake has created one charming gangster.

Blake's previous eight works have featured a slew of bad boys, starting with The Pistoleer's John Wesley Hardin. In last year's Under the Skin, the protagonist was a 1930s gambling mob enforcer. He was as blood-loving as his unacknowledged father, Fodolfo Fierro (The Friends of Pancho Villa). These and other Blake characters typically punch, knee, tromp, bang and shoot up with aplomb. Pierpont does them with restraint.

Based on the life of John Dillinger's fellow Harry Pierpont, the novel is set on only two dates--Oct. 16-17, 1934--on Ohio State Prison's death row. Narrated in first person, the "Confessions" element is an execution-eve opportunity to tell Pierpont's "true" story.

He makes no apologies for his life. As a kid in Indiana, he was delinquent but usually forgiven. Regularly stealing cars by 16 (steal a Buick, stick up a gas station, and he was set for a date) and quick to fight, he once nearly killed a boy for calling him a name. His blue eyes and good looks, plus Mama's good lawyers, kept him out of jail for a while, but finally, at 19, he was sent to Jeffersonville Reformatory.

At Jeffersonville, he established a reputation that would define him. Defending himself against a three-man shower attack, he put two of the guys in the hospital and one in the morgue, and he didn't suffer in solitary confinement. The word was that Pierpont wasn't to be messed with and that he couldn't be cowed. The hole just gave him time to plot escapes.

Released three years later, Pierpont moved up to bank robbery. When one of his new associates gave him up, Pierpont landed himself in another reformatory. That didn't last. He was caught sawing through the bars of his cell and was transferred from reformatory to penitentiary. But he met John Dillinger. In Michigan City Penitentiary, after several thwarted escape attempts and subsequent stays in the hole, he had honed his technique. In October 1933, Pierpont and nine others escaped "M City."

Their activities from then on are well-known: After another jail break, with a core of five men and two or three women, the "Dillinger Gang" entered what he calls the "banking business" in the Midwest. They'd scout a bank, stage the robbery unmasked--precisely and courteously--and career away with guns blazing only if they were shot at. They had the temerity to rob police stations. Dillinger would vault over counters even if he could have walked around. They became famous. And if gentlemanly Charley Makley hadn't tipped a fireman for saving his gun- and loot-filled suitcase from the Hotel Congress fire in Tucson 70 years ago, they might have been able to retire to Miami.

The traditional cops and robbers perspective upended, Blake lets Pierpont engage in a little social commentary: As he sees it, bankers, stock brokers and insurance CEOs were the criminals. With economic power, they "owned" the law. He was an outlaw--"the only way left for a man to hold on to his self-respect." And he abides by a kind of honor among thieves.

Blake tells the story with enough humor, finesse and deftly paced action to wring the critical right out of this critic. You can't change history, and the inevitable live-by-the-sword scenario plays out. But Blake gives the tale his spin. He engages reader's sympathy for the gangster, and he gets to make a final novelist's twist.

Handsome Harry is a kick to read. And then there's that cover photo: It's a historical mug shot of Harry Pierpont, hair oiled and combed, in neat jacket and shirt. His eyes are closed. No act of rebellion was too small, apparently. If refusing to open his eyes for the camera would gall authorities, he would keep 'em shut for hours.

Incorrigible. The ladies loved him.