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Outlaw Fiction: To Romanticize or Not to Romanticize?

Today marks the paperback publication of Thomas Mullen’s critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, an impeccably-researched journey across the storied era of public enemy gangsters…with a twist, that the LA Times called arip-roaring yarn that manages to be both phantasmagorical and historically accurate.” As the new edition of his novel hits the shelves, Mullen reflects on the balancing act between right and wrong and using  a generous helping of both principles to entertain, shock and amaze.

Writing a book in which the main character is a criminal poses some tricky dilemmas for a writer. How likeable should your outlaw be? If he or she is too likable, are you being unrealistic?  Worse, are you romanticizing crime, trying to make palatable for a mass audience a thing which, in real life,is actually pretty rotten and harmful?

I found myself wrestling with this when I was writing my second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, which tells the tale of two fictional bank robbers in the 1930s, the era of famous real-life hoods like John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd. Even back when those desperadoes were still alive and still robbing banks (and still, let’s not forget, killing a lot of people), the public debated how they should be represented in newspapers and pulp magazines, in dime novels based on their lives, in newsreels, and in the films that Hollywood quickly cranked out to capitalize on J. Edgar Hoover’s wildly popular “War on Crime.” Were they Robin Hoods or maniacs?  Heroes or villains?  Good people pushed too far by a crooked system, or just plain rotten to the bone? John Dillinger was said to be a charmer, putting his arm around a prosecuting attorney for a photo op after he was arrested.  Bonnie Parker wrote poetry and took dashing photos of herself and her lover Clyde with cigarettes in their mouths and guns in their hands. Floyd was called a decent family man caught into an impossible position due to the Depression and some missteps as an adolescent. But is any of that true, or was that just the way journalists and filmmakers portrayed them to better package their stories for a public that was hungry for white-knuckle stories and was yearning, in the dark days of the Depression, for hope?

Old school Mafia ! B/WDespite being a voracious reader and a writer now for longer than I can remember, I’d have a hard time elucidating what exactly makes for a great book. I know it when I read it, but it’s difficult to explain—and I honestly try not to overanalyze this, for fear of dispelling the magic. But it’s been interesting to me that, when talking to readers at book clubs and bookstores and lectures over the last five years, and when reading reviews or overhearing discussions, or talking to editors, one thing is repeated more than any other: the love of characters. A great character elevates a book. Readers seem to have a vastly open mind regarding types of plots and themes and voices and narrative devices, but if a book doesn’t have characters they really dig, the book falls flat. I’m someone who often conceives of a book idea via a plot or a theme or a setting first, and then spends a lot of time trying to nail the characters. But the more I hear readers talk about the need for strong protagonists, the borderline hunger for fictional folks they can identify with and fall in love with, the more attention I try to pay to character development during even the earliest stages of outlining and daydreaming.[1]

This makes it complicated, then, if your characters are people who break the law, who cheat and steal and, yes, who murder. If readers want likable characters, can you really make people like that likable? Is that dishonest?  Worse, is it irresponsible?

As I planned the book and started the early writing, I read all I could of early 1920s and ‘30s pulp stories, researched the real lives of Dillinger and his cohorts, watched as many Hollywood depictions of Thirties hoodlums as I could find, and read other novels based on famous outlaws (like E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Elmore Leonard’s The Hot Kid).

I was particularly struck by two films about Thirties bank robbers that came out in the late Sixties and early Seventies. First, in 1967, Arthur Penn’s groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde. It not only rescued these two hoods from relative obscurity (they’d never been nearly as famous as Dillinger or Floyd), but it shocked audiences with its refusal to judge these two crooks, its sympathetic portrayal of them as young, charming, sexy outlaws. (Faye Dunaway, for God’s sake! The real-life Bonnie Parker was bony, riddled with smallpox scars, and, to be kind, not described as attractive.) This was one of the films that spurred Hollywood to adopt the modern rating system, as legions of Americans were outraged by the film’s reckless violence and its blatant appeal to the rebellious younger generation of the Sixties.

In Bryan Burrough’s recent, excellent history of the War on Crime, Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, he notes that the real-life Bonnie and Clyde were vicious, petty killers. They did not target rich big banks and pull their triggers only when cornered by cops, as in the film; they robbed mom-and-pop stores and gas stations in poverty-stricken areas, and they randomly killed civilians. The movie, Burroughs writes some 37 years after its release, took “a shark-eyed multiple murderer and his deluded girlfriend and transformed them into sympathetic characters, imbuing them with a cuddly likeability they did not possess, and a cultural significance they do not deserve.” The film, in other words, romanticized criminals, whitewashing their negative attributes and presenting them in glorious, Hollywood style to sell tickets and usher in a bold new style of filmmaking.[2]

Seven years after Bonnie and Clyde, venerable filmmaker Robert Altman released Thieves Like Us, based on the 1937 novel by Frederick A. Stokes (which I confess is one bank-robber book I haven’t gotten around to reading yet). This movie was Altman’s direct reply to Bonnie and Clyde, his shot across the realist bow. Rather than romanticizing criminals, he kept it real. His trio of hoods (who break out of a Southern prison and rob a few more banks before meeting their predictable demise) are none too smart, slothful, and they bicker a lot. Whole scenes consist of dialogue that doesn’t really go anywhere, with nothing dramatic happening on screen. Altman seemed to cast deliberately unglamorous actors and actresses – their faces wan, their hair mussed, their clothes threadbare. He was saying, “you want to see a film about criminals? I’ll show you criminals – they’re selfish, stupid, ugly jerks.” The result may have scored him a few of those philosophical points, but at the cost of entertainment; it’s a boring film. When the crooks get theirs in a hail of bullets, you barely care – you’re just happy the movie’s finally over.[3]

Using these movies as examples, you can draw the conclusion that presenting criminal lead characters in gritty, realistic terms is a great way to turn off an audience, and that jazzing them up with sexy looks and sharp lines is the ticket to a blockbuster.[4] Which leads us back into the whole honesty/responsibility argument. An argument that seems to crop up every few years; in my college days, it was Natural Born Killers, Menace II Society, and Falling Down which allegedly made crime seem cool, even though the protagonist crooks in those films died in the end. (Newsweek even ran a cover story asking if movie violence was getting out of hand.)

As a writer, I knew that if I dirtied my characters up too much, if I exposed vast amounts of selfishness and vanity and cruelty in their criminal acts, it would turn readers off. I might win over a few fans of hardcore crime realism, but I’d lose everyone else. If I made them too handsome and funny and clever, on the other hand, then I’d be dishonest, and (maybe even worse for an artist) I’d be repeating the clichés put forth by Bonnie and Clyde and many, many books and films since.

So where’s the line, and how do we stay on it, or close enough so that we can create new, exciting, groundbreaking fiction that people also enjoy reading?

Writers have handled this in different ways. Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang is a mostly sympathetic portrayal of Australia’s Robin Hood, Ned Kelly, but because it’s narrated by the criminal, it seems honest, neither glamorizing him nor shying away from his bad side. And maybe that’s the ticket, something that film has a harder time with in its 120-minute constraints: to delve so deeply into the characters, to let us see the world through their very skewed but undeniably exhilarating view, to show the flaws and faults that made them fail at the straight life as well as the charm and wiles that help them succeed at crime. To create a fuller picture in all its glory, which is what we really want about any character in any book, regardless of subject matter.

I tried to solve the problem in The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers partly through the structure of the story itself. Because we hear from many different characters – the bank robbing brothers; their jealous, hardworking, law-abiding third brother; their pining lovers; their worried, heartsick mother; and the overwhelmed young FBI man tasked with hunting them down – I was able to present different views of bank robbers. In some scenes they’re as charismatic as a young Warren Beatty (though personally I was visualizing a young Harrison Ford), in some they’re vain and simple. Some characters worship them as heroes fighting a broken system and others hate them as cheaters in the great contest of life.

I have to admit: I loved these characters, more than any I’ve ever written, despite their flaws and faults. Maybe because of their flaws and faults. And, hopefully, I left it to readers to decide whether they’re good or bad, likable or unlikeable, just as we have to make these same judgment calls every day about the people we see on the evening news, in our meetings and boardrooms, and on our darkened sidewalks.

And if anyone wants to hand me a movie deal and a time machine, then Harrison Ford at age 35 is welcome to play one of the leads.

[1] Which isn’t to say I think characters are automatically the most important part of a book. I can think of some great writers who really don’t write characters all that well – Don Delillo and Haruki Murakami, for example, are far more concerned with theme and ideas and overall vibe and have not (in the 12 or so books of theirs that I’ve read) created any truly memorable characters. Yet their books still rock.

[2] And I mean this in a totally nonjudgmental way; the movie is fabulous.

[3] It’s also worth noting that the Hollywood adaption of Burrough’s own book, by Michael Mann in 2009, which left out Bonnie and Clyde to focus on Dillinger and Nelson, and which took some liberties with chronology but was mostly faithful to historical fact in its depiction of the criminals, was met with a tepid response from audiences for precisely that reason: Johnny Depp’s portrayal wasn’t likeable enough.

[4] If only it were that easy! But you get the point.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction and The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers which was published in January 2010 and is released in paperback today.

Mulholland Books will publish THE REVISIONISTS in Fall 2011.