Book review: Sutton by J. R. Moehringer


By J. R. Moehringer
Narrated by Dylan Baker
Publisher: Hyperion
Pub. Date: 2012
Duration: 15.12 hours


This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:

  2013 Audio Book Challenge     where are you reading

   hf-reading-challenge-2013 New Authors 2013


Rating system


At my block book club, each member shares about the book he/she read and liked during the previous month. One member shared with excitement about Sutton.  So I had a very long trip planned by car, I decided to listen to it. What a great experience it was!

In the French literature, we have a long tradition of the “gentleman cambrioleur”, a thief who is at the same time a gentleman, robbing without violence. The most famous one is Arsène Lupin, a character invented by Maurice Leblanc  in 1906.

But the “gentleman thief” is not necessarily a fictive character only. Indeed, Willie “The Actor” Sutton (1901-1980) was a notorious bank robber in the US, even making it to the first FBI’s list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. He managed to escape several times from maximum-security prisons. As the legend and folk hero he had become, crowds cheered him when he was finally released from Attica State Prison on Christmas Eve 1969.

To avoid being bothered forever by journalists, he made a deal to spend a day with a newspaper reporter and photographer, taking them on a tour of his life.

This book is precisely organized around what that day might have been – Sutton left two autobiographies, but as they contradict each other, the author had some margins to write a believable fiction based on some known facts.

I really enjoyed a lot the structure of the book: the reporter and the photographer follow the map Willie has given them, and with him they drive from place to place, as each address appears chronologically in his life: the place where he grew up, the first bank he robbed, etc. Each place then allows Willie to remember and through these flashbacks, he tells the journalists and us the readers what happened then and there.

Moehringer did a great job at showing how growing in the slums of Brooklyn, in very poor conditions, somewhat predestined Willie to his grim future. It was appalling to see how the economic conditions – the Depression – put obstacles all along, even though he did try several times to find a honest job and stick to it. And no one can be surprised at the hate he developed for banks.

The book is full of adventure, as Willie retells his different bank robberies and escapes, for instance; there’s also humor, as the reporter and photographer realize that Willie is still very much “the actor”, and they end up discovering that they may have become themselves his prisoners for a day.

I really had the feeling I was getting to know Willie, with his appalling first years, growing up with jealous and violent brothers, with his sentimental life, his amazing love of books – he developed quite a reading program in prison, and his mental make-up.

There are also lots of elements of mystery, especially around his love for Bess. I’m not going to give spoilers, but the end of the book invites the reader to reconsider every word of Sutton, and wonder if he would have made it or not in different economic times: was he indeed a victim of society and economic turbulences? Or did his love of money make him imagine things he built all his life around, and develop different personalities? Was he mentally strong or extremely fragile? Was he meticulous or totally obsessive? Is he worthy to be the hero he was in the mind of many?

At a time when banks seem again to have some more than prominent role in our society, I think this is really timely to be remembered the life of the most famous bank robbers.

Thoughts on the audiobook:

I had never heard the narrator Dylan Baker before. I highly recommend you to listen to this book. Baker is superb, with great different voices for each character in the book. He manages to give an idea of the social milieu behind each one. He conveys extremely well the description of poverty, and the mystery scenes leave you on the edge of your seat, as the suspense is so well rendered. Baker’s voice is fantastic at giving you an idea of Willie’s very complex personality, as his tone of voice changes depending on the circumstances; you can feel Sutton still act in from of you, the listener.

Are you planning a long trip? Invite Willie in your car, you will not be bored a minute!


Willie Sutton was born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, and came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren’t failing outright, causing countless Americans to lose their jobs and homes, they were being propped up with emergency bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams.

So began the career of America’s most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List.

But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name.

Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer’s retelling, it was more than poverty or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton’s crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked free – a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969 – he immediately set out to find her.

Poignant, comic, fast-paced and fact-studded, Sutton tells a story of economic pain that feels eerily modern, while unfolding a story of doomed love that is forever timeless. [Goodreads]

click on the little green arrow just under the audiobook cover




MoehringerJ.R. Moehringer is an American journalist and author. Born in New York City and raised in Manhasset, New York, he is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.
A 1986 graduate of Yale University, Moehringer began his journalism career as a news assistant at The New York Times.
He won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 2000. [Goodreads]



4 thoughts on “Book review: Sutton by J. R. Moehringer

  1. Pingback: 2013 Audio book challenge | Words And Peace

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