The Kidnap Years: The Astonishing True History Of The Forgotten Kidnapping Epidemic That Shook Depression-Era America, by David Stout
With a book like this there is all kinds of wasted potential. This is a book that could have been great, the subject matter is certainly interesting and the author’s exploration of a kidnapping epidemic in the late 20’s to the mid 30’s, with organized kidnapping gangs, had traumatic results and also led to a rise in an early war on crime that led to tough sentencing, including the death penalty, for a crime that had previously not been viewed as being particularly serious. Yet despite this potential, the author really blows it, and it is instructive to consider why this is the case. For one, the author’s slavish devotion to the New York Times is rather dubious. But more to the point is the way that the author just butchers this book to oblivion with terrible structure, setting up stories and then waiting to finish them off for hundreds of pages, screwing up the chronological organization of the material and jumping about from one scattered mess of a chapter to another. This would not have been a hard book to make good, but the author just could not stay on point or structure this in a way that did more than provide plenty of teases and unresolved setups left hanging.
This book is about 400 pages long and divided into 47 generally short chapters that lack any kind of overarching consistent structure. The general subject matter of the book is a kidnapping epidemic that took place from about 1928 to 1936 or so. This is discussed via material that deals with a variety of people, including the kidnapping victims themselves, who were sometimes part of wealthy families but at other times were just poor and ordinary people caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people, political leaders, journalists, law enforcement, and gangsters and other criminals. The author demonstrates how the combination of press sensationalism about kidnappings as well as the growing public hostility to any crime wave, which led to increased penalties, including the death penalty, for kidnapping and related offenses. The book also discusses how the kidnapping craze led to an opportunistic bid for increased federal power by the IRS and especially the FBI, which has had negative consequences for the long term freedom of Americans from burdensome federal bureaucracies.
How did the author mess up so badly? The author is, it should be noted, a journo, and that does not inspire a great deal of confidence on my part. Yet one of the important lessons of journalism is not to bury the lede, which this author does repeatedly. Continually the author brings up someone only to drop the discussion for a dozen chapters before picking it up again. If the author was found to be suffering from untreated adult ADHD, it would be little surprise from the way this book shows scattered thoughts and jumping from one topic and kidnapping case to another, focusing here on doctors and there on children and at another place on beer heirs and still other places at the collusion between politicos and the mob, and still later on the effect of journalism. Any one of those threads could have been worthwhile if they were followed up on in some fashion, either with a chronological focus that tried to keep all of the balls in play with updates, or in focusing on one crime story at a time, resolving one and then moving on to the next, but the author screws it up badly by failing to organize effectively either chronologically or topically. Some structural editing would have made drastic improvements to this book.