The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

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The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: This has all the required elements of a 1930s American gangster story, but also explores family relationships, a country in economic collapse and the power of myths and stories - and a pair of bank-robbing brothers who refuse to stay dead. A hugely enjoyable read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN: 978-0007340828

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The country is in deep recession. The economy has collapsed. The banks are hated and there's the next round of politicians, assuring us they were not afflicted by the same lack of vision as their predecessors. Does this sound at all familiar? But just when you think you have strayed into the non-fiction aisle, it all becomes clear. This is 1930s America - full of gangsters, speakeasies, Tommy guns, fedoras, beautiful heiresses, bumbling cops and the newly formed FBI, daring bank robberies and kidnaps. Yes, the gang is all here, but 'The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers' is a lot more than your average gangster book and it's a hugely fun story.

At the centre of the book are Jason and Whit Fireson, collectively referred to in the press and elsewhere as the Firefly Brothers; notorious bank robbers and, with the recent shooting of John Dillinger, currently riding in the top position on the FBI's most-wanted list. Or at least they were until just before the start of the book. When we first meet them, the pair are laid out on cooling boards in the local police morgue, riddled with bullet wounds. But they’re still alive. Confused? Well, so are they. But they have other matters to attend to, like how to get out of the police station, how to find their loved ones and how to recover enough money so that they can disappear for good and maybe set up that restaurant in California that Jason has dreamed of. Then, of course, there’s the issue of who ratted them out to the cops. Thankfully, being apparently dead takes some of the heat off things for a while.

It's great fun and a highly entertaining read. But if you are expecting a fast action-filled story of gangster capers, you might be a bit disappointed. In fact, there’s much more depth to this story. Leaving aside the fact that the brothers have a disturbing tendency to increase the national average for deaths per lifetime, the book paints a vivid picture of a nation in economic meltdown but most of all, it is a book about families.

The boys are your typical gangsters who are good to their mother, but there is also an exploration of the boys' relationships with their father, who before his death was an upstanding member of the community who nevertheless ended up on the wrong side of the law. The boys’ relationships with him and the back story of how they grew up and ended up in their line of work is fully explored. Sibling relationships are also prevalent, both between Jason and Whit as well as with their non-gangster brother Weston. Then there are father-daughter issues for Jason’s beau, the classic gangster’s moll, a rich heiress attracted to bad boys. Her relationship with Jason is just one reason why her father, a motor magnate, disowns her. But how will he react when she’s kidnapped? Or will Jason get there first?

One of the main victims of The Wall Street Crash was arguably the American Dream. The book explores how gangsters were turned into heroic protectors of the Dream and how myths and stories were often shockingly different from their real motivations. It also looks at how different character’s views of the same events can lead to different life choices and views. As Mullen beautifully puts it, people need their lives to have meaning, their stories to make sense. People tell their stories to place themselves somewhere solid in this great swirl that they can’t otherwise understand. The stories define what is possible, what the tellers yearn for, what they believe they deserve. The self-made man, the American Dream.

At this point, you might be wondering why I haven't made more of the brothers' habit of not being, or more accurately staying, killed, particularly as this happens on three separate occasions (does three count as 'many'? I guess in terms of being significantly above the norm, then we can allow that in this instance). Well, partly that's because neither does the book. The brothers have just too much going on to worry about why they keep getting reincarnated. Eventually, the reason is explained although, perhaps inevitably, it's not entirely satisfactory and there are some threads left unexplained such as why this also happens to another character at one point. But strangely this doesn't seem to matter, although I suspect it will cause some arguments amongst readers.

The reason it doesn't matter is that the storytelling is so joyful. Mullen's descriptions and similes are full of fun and frequently had me smiling and re-reading them to savour. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. I suspect the book may appeal slightly more to male readers.

Jump on the running board and enjoy the ride.

The Bookbag tips its fedora in gratification to the notorious publishing gang Fourth Estate for smuggling this book to us.

If you want more stories about people who stubbornly refuse to follow the conventions laid down for mortality, then why not check out Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, while for another great read set in a similar period, and also featuring a cameo appearance from J Edgar Hoover's FBI team, Barbara Kingsolver's Orange-nominated The Lacuna is an excellent read. The theme of the importance of books and stories is also explored in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is also highly recommended. You might enjoy Crooked Justice by J R Stephenson but we had our reservations.

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