Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Butchertown Chronicles: The Crook

Don’t Call Me a Crook!: A Scotsman’s Tale of World Travel, Whisky, and Crime by Bob Moore (Dissident Books, 2009) is the autobiography of a thief, liar, womanizer, gigolo, bigot . . . and murderer. And, no matter how strenuously he denies it, a crook.

He’s not one bit sorry for it either.

“It is a pity there is getting to be so many places that I can never go back to,” Bob Moore explains at the start, “but all the same, I do not think it is much fun a man being respectable all his life.”

This isn’t a saga for delicate minds, frail nerves, or fine moral and political sensibilities. It is tawdry, crudely written, and one of the gamiest accounts of criminal life I’ve read.

We all know autobiographies are always untrustworthy—one can’t imagine them not being edited, air-brushed, filtered, and self-serving. (Here’s one you’ll never see: I Was History’s Worst Monster and I’m Genuinely Sorry and Apologize to Everyone for All Eternity by Adolf Hitler.)

But even if he is a full-stop liar, Moore’s boastful account of his life on the lam around the globe, from Scotland to Europe, from the United States to China, can be read as an exposé of a corrupt, impulsive, jittery, and restless mind. You close the book wondering if his crimes were even worse than he lets on.

Moore was born in Glasgow, Scotland, probably around 1898. He attempted to enlist to fight in World War I, was rejected as too young, but then managed to sneak by on his next try. To his regret, though, he never achieved his dream of fighting in the trenches:

“So when I found out I had to wear overalls and grease aeroplanes . . . and never kill anyone at all . . . I began to be sorry that I had enlisted at all.”

After being struck on the head by a propeller (which seemed to have had no salutary effect), Moore left the service, studied to be an engineer, and set off across the Seven Seas, sailing straight into trouble by ripping $10,000 worth of diamonds off a smuggler, once he reaches the States.

After returning to Glasgow, Moore married a fellow Glaswegian, had a child, and hurriedly shed both as he zipped back to America. Eventually, his family tired of his antics and shipped him overseas by way of Egypt and Australia. He wreaked havoc all along the way. Back in America, he helped smuggle other Europeans across the Canadian border. Somewhere in all this frenzied living, he joined the bootlegging business as a driver.

Moore became a creature of the Roaring Twenties as he pinballed his way through that rowdy decade—stealing, brawling, mugging, occasionally clawing his way up from the underworld to seduce lonely, wealthy women, then diving back down into the murk, his pockets full, only to get ripped off by other thieves. Along the way, he stopped by Times Square to mug gay men. He may well have murdered a gangster in Hoboken for ripping him off (though he works to cover his tracks in the narrative. Never know when coppers are going to show up and start asking questions!)

Moore never held a job for any length of time, especially outside a ship’s engine room. Chronically combative, especially toward any and all authority, he was impervious to command, legitimate or not. There could be no legitimate authority over Bob Moore. Ever.

One of his longest-lasting jobs was a seven-month engineering gig spent steering a millionaire’s yacht all over Long Island Sound while the Roaring Twenties boomed away on the upper decks. (Despite the orgies, I found this to be one the book’s duller sections, revealing the author’s lack of interest in anything beyond surface details.)

Lest you think his contempt for his employers makes Moore a romantic, anti-authoritarian, anarcho-socialist, I must disabuse you of such quaint notions. He may have hated the rich and powerful, but he has nothing good to say about those next to and below his strata, either: other sailors, women, gays, blacks, Chinese, no one would want to be around him for long.

Unlike Jack Black (about whom I’ve written here), Moore has no deep connections with other citizens of the underworld. He’s no one’s friend or co-conspirator. Jack Black saw his world whole and took an interest in the people around him. Often drunk, Moore saw his era in sodden glimpses: Al Capone’s car riding by; a brief suspicion that a young woman who tends to him while he’s hiding out is Anna Hauptmann, wife of Lindbergh baby kidnapper Richard Hauptmann.

One of the most harrowing sections is Moore’s account of his experiences on the S.S. Vestris, a cargo-passenger ship that sank off the coast of Virginia in 1928 with the loss of over a hundred lives, most of them passengers. (This is one of the few corroborative incidents from Moore’s life.)

Moore never learned his lessons. Even a stint in the worst jail in Argentina failed to quench his thirst for trouble. His exploits turned even more harrowing after he hooked up with a psychopath named Mitchell, a character even more lacking in impulse control than he is. The pair shipped off to China—right when the Communist revolution was about to explode.

Here, Moore’s account take a squalid, violent, and murderous turn when he sails up the Yangtze into China’s wild interior. Exaggerated or not, it’s a miracle he survived, but you may not admire him for it. He may seem a roguish, blue-collar hero in Glasgow, but in China, he’s a hardened racist colonialist.

Moore’s book was first published in 1935 in England, under the guidance of an editor named Pat Spry, a name that seems an alias like Moore’s. The book reads like a breather between adventures. I get a sense that Moore plunged back down into the underworld, the law and the devil burning his tail, before the ink even dried. According to this article via the Dissident Books website, he died in 1938, leaving behind another embittered wife, and a son.

Unlike other true crime biographies I’ve read—such as Jack Black’s—there’s no ache of regret, no whiff of reform. The title alone tells all: like a good psychopath, Moore has a handy excuse for nearly everything he does.

It’s a blessing Don’t Call Me a Crook! is relatively short. I found Moore to be difficult company, sometimes fascinating, often appalling. He comes off as glib chatterbox with a surface charm that wears off quickly. He makes much of being a swell guy who gets ripped off whenever he tries to lend a helping hand. As for his victims, well, they learned a good lesson, didn’t they? Meeting such a rogue in a book is one thing. In real life, I’d say g’night after the third whiskey. For sure, I’d count all my fingers after shaking his hand.

While Moore employs clever turns of phrase, has an excellent eye for the details of ship life and people’s dress and behavior, the book is clumsily, hurriedly written, in the rushed manner of a life too quickly lived to have brought much joy. His admirers claim he loved life and embraced it to the fullest. Some would say he failed to stand still long enough to notice. Or long enough to care.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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