PRETTY BOY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD by Michael Wallis
W. W. Norton & Company (June 6, 2011), 505 pages
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was one of those Depression-era outlaws who flashed across the newspaper headlines, captured the public’s imagination, became one of J. Edgar Hoover’s Public Enemies, died in a shoot-out and is still remembered today – although separating Pretty Boy fact from legend is difficult – including how he came to be known as “Pretty Boy”. Floyd was tagged with numerous bank robberies and murders – including the Kansas City Massacre – some of which he was responsible for, but many more he had nothing to do with.
Originally published in 1992 and now in reprint, Pretty Boy is still the most in-depth biography of Floyd out there. The first 150 pages of the book track Floyd’s birth in northwestern Georgia and the Floyd family’s move to Oklahoma. If 150 pages seems like a lot for this topic, that’s because Charley is a minor character in this part of the narrative. Along with Floyd’s family history, the reader follows Sherman’s March during the Civil War, Native American history, the story of the James Gang and a primer on other mid-western outlaws including Henry Starr.
Charley, or “Choc” as he was known at the time due to his fondness for a by-product of moonshine, then re-enters the story as a young man. Tired of the farming life, full of wanderlust and in search of adventure, he took to the road and specifically Kansas City, a criminal haven, and became an outlaw. Floyd also got married, fathered a child and went to prison. But here again the author digresses – often - with stories of Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, J. Edgar Hoover and many others. Although I appreciate what the author attempted with this book – putting Floyd within the context of his times - and although many of the side notes are extremely interesting – there’s simply too much supplemental information here and it overwhelms Pretty Boy’s story. (The author’s recent book on Billy the Kid does an excellent balancing biography with the history of the time.) This book is also full of home-spun colloquialisms that also prove tiresome. (“Swoop down like a duck on a June bug”, “popped up like wild-blossoms in a manure pile” and “withered like an old woman’s teat” to name just a few.)
On the plus side, when telling Floyd’s story, the author provides some fascinating information with some excellent detective work - None more so than concerning Pretty Boy’s involvement in the Kansas City Massacre. Although Wallis doesn’t prove Floyd’s innocence in this shoot-out, he raises some serious doubt, starting with eyewitness accounts and Hoover’s opportunism in both solving the crime and bagging Floyd.
Crime history buffs will enjoy this book, but again there is much to wade through here, which may test the reader’s patience.
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