Under an Outlaw Moon is depression-era true crime, set in the dust bowl of the Midwest, in a time when villains were idolized, and Hoover always got his man. Dietrich Kalteis inks out the lives of real-life couple Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson as they evade the authorities for nearly a year after robbing two federal banks at gunpoint. Kalteis’ distinct mix of staccato and parataxis sentences gives the reader a challenge when delving into the storyline, but once one learns his rhythm the characters flash to life.
Twenty-something, poetry lover Bad Bennie Dickson, aka Johnny O’Malley, has grandiose dreams of putting himself through law school by winning paid fights and robbing banks. Stella Mae Redenbaugh, a mere fifteen and with more true grit and sexual prowess than women twice her age, yearns for a life in Tinseltown and falling for a slick-haired bad boy with movie star looks. These two doomed lovers meet innocently enough and soon become as notorious as their predecessors in crime Bonnie and Clyde.
Bennie has good intentions of being a respectable citizen, wanting to make his family proud, but in a time of uncertainty and classism, he falls into a life of crime in his early youth and spends time in a penitentiary, yet still tries to make good. He blames no one for his misfortune and tries to “roll with the punches” and says that being “born under an Outlaw Moon might explain why things turned out like they did.” Stella on the other hand blames her lot in life on the night she and her friend Liz accepted a ride home from the man at the roller rink. Her innocence shattered, she soon becomes the gutsy, levelheaded, sure shot of the car-thieving, bank-robbing duo.
Kalteis has an opportunity to flesh out the character of G-Man Werner Hanni who was the lead for the FBI in the hunt for the Dickson’s, but he just skims lightly over his involvement in their storyline. Hanni seems to be the only G-Man at the time to oppose the egomaniacal J. Edgar Hoover and his process for handling criminals, with his shoot first ask questions later policies. Hoover, portrayed as an attention-seeking media hound with paranoid conspiracy theories of everyone who was forward-thinking at the time has Hanni in an awkward position threatening a post in Alaska if the Dicksons were not caught in a timely fashion. Hanni had witnessed how Dillinger and the Barrows had been gunned down, and he has hopes that the infamous Time Lock Bandits do not succumb to the same fate.
The Dickson’s never fired a shot during their robberies, yet they were vilified in the newspapers, while witnesses stated they were polite and agreeable; Bennie even fulfilled promises of payment for stolen cars and assistance as Stella stood willing beside her man. Despite their tumultuous ending Stella never stopped loving her “Johnny,” the handsome-faced, wavy-haired youth who fed her lines at the roller rink where she met him before she turned sixteen.
Although Mr. Kalteis does justice to their tale, this reader is left wishing he had fleshed out the dirt poor gatsbyesque characters and the landscape in which their lives played out much sooner than he did; rather, they are left with a collar and shoulder style piece of work where imagination is key. Overall, a gripping read I would recommend to those who love the golden era of the dirty thirties.
About the Author
Dietrich Kalteis is an award-winning author. His debut, Ride the Lightning, was hailed as one of the best Vancouver crime novels. He lives on Canada’s west coast, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and spends as much time as possible in California.
- Publisher : ECW Press (Nov. 2 2021)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 240 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1770415475
- ISBN-13 : 978-1770415478