It's 1933 and Prohibition has given rise to the American gangster--now infamous names like Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger. Bank robberies at gunpoint are commonplace and kidnapping for ransom is the scourge of a lawless nation. With local cops unauthorized to cross state lines in pursuit and no national police force, safety for kidnappers is just a short trip on back roads they know well from their bootlegging days. Gangster George "Machine Gun" Kelly and his wife, Kathryn, are some of the most celebrated criminals of the Great Depression. With gin-running operations facing extinction and bank vaults with dwindling stores of cash, Kelly sets his sights on the easy-money racket of kidnapping. His target: rich oilman, Charles Urschel.
Enter J. Edgar Hoover, a desperate Justice Department bureaucrat who badly needs a successful prosecution to impress the new administration and save his job. Hoover's agents are given the sole authority to chase kidnappers across state lines and when Kelly bungles the snatch job, Hoover senses his big opportunity. What follows is a thrilling 20,000 mile chase over the back roads of Depression-era America, crossing 16 state lines, and generating headlines across America along the way--a historical mystery/thriller for the ages.
Joe Urschel's The Year of Fear is a thrilling true crime story of gangsters and lawmen and how an obscure federal bureaucrat used this now legendary kidnapping case to launch the FBI.
Urschel, the executive director of the National Law Enforcement Museum, overcomes some early stumbles to produce a true crime page-turner about George "Machine Gun" Kelly, a legendary Depression-era criminal man who is remembered unjustifiably, according to the author as "one of the most notorious hoodlums who terrorized the Midwest." The repercussions of Kelly's kidnapping of Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel (not a relative of the author) in 1933 validate the bold claim made in the book's subtitle. The author effectively traces how Charles Urschel's wife's immediate call to a newly established federal hotline led to young J. Edgar Hoover's most successful investigation, and the birth of the FBI. Urschel makes clear how much of that success in the search for Kelly and his cohorts was due to the victim's incredible sangfroid while a captive and his remarkable memory for details, including the distances between buildings on the farm where he was held. There are some drawbacks an initial tendency to dramatize events, the absence of detailed sourcing of information but those who enjoyed Bryan Burroughs's more comprehensive Public Enemies (2004) will still find this focus on one colorful character enjoyable.