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The Big Book of Little Criminals. Written by George Hagenauer and Carl Sifakis and others. Illustrated by various. New York: Paradox Press/DC Comics, 1996. 191p. (Factoid Book). $14.95. ISBN 1-56389-217-0.

Nonfiction; reference; crime & mystery

Adults, teens, older kids; guns, mild violence

"63 True Tales of the World's Most Incompetent Jailbirds" are purported to be within this volume. It is broken up into six sections: "Small-Time Hoods"; "Hustlers"; "Forgers, Fakers, and Funny Money"; "Disorganized Crime"; "Little Women"; and "Heists." Each section is preceded by a very brief overview of the topic and contents. Each story within the first five sections is about an individual or group; the final chapter covers famous robberies, such as the Brink's Job and the Great Train Robbery. Sample entries include ones for Black Bart, the "Po8"; Count Victor Lustig, who sold the Eiffel Tower twice; "Mr. 880," an old man who counterfeited $1 bills; the Chicago Black Sox; Ma Barker, whose vicious reputation was a fiction made up by the FBI to justify her accidental killing; and the infamous D. B. Cooper and his disastrous leap from a plane. The tone is pretty even throughout and not as mocking as one might expect from the title of the book.

As in previous volumes in this series, the book concludes with a series of biographies of the artists and writers. Artists include Terry Austin, Ernie Colon, D'Israeli D'emon Draughtsman, Ric Estrada, Rick Geary, Dave Gibbons, Paul Gulacy, Linda Medley, Jeff Nicholson, Ty Templeton, and Gahan Wilson, among many others. Unlike previous volumes, this book includes a long bibliography--most likely due to the influence of Sifakis, probably the premiere crime reference book writer in the country.

This book is pretty much like the others in the series, though I do prefer this set of artists to the others I've reviewed so far (Urban Legends and Martyrs); there seems to have been more latitude for creativity. The text is more authoritative on average, though the Black Sox entry implies that a kid really did say, "Say it ain't so, Joe!", when it's now known that that incident was entirely made up.

However, the title has one serious flaw: Though the subtitle promises incompetent criminals, most of the individuals in this book cannot be considered incompetent/crazy. Al Capone may not have been a big shot in prison (his entry concerns his mistreatment by other prisoners while incarcerated), but he was certainly a terror before he was caught--hardly the equivalent of D. B. Cooper. Or take the case of the the Mona Lisa forgers: the masterpiece disappeared from the Louvre for a while, so forgers took the opportunity to turn a nice profit selling fake Mona Lisas to weathy Americans. When the real thing turned up and the market (obviously) dried up, the forgers were never caught. Is that incompetence? Anyway, my point is that I came to this book expecting a cartoon version of "The World's Dumbest Crooks" and got a rather more serious treatment, with only a few genuinely incompetent criminals between these pages.

Overall, this is a well-done work that will entertain and inform on an interesting, lurid topic. Recommended.


Copyright 2000, D. Aviva Rothschild


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