Book review: World, Chase Me Down by Andrew Hilleman
Andrew Hilleman’s riveting debut chronicles the incredible exploits of a hardened criminal who gained notoriety in 1900 for kidnapping and holding to ransom the teenage son of a meatpacking tycoon in Omaha and got away with $25,000 in gold.
The model for the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping some 30 years later, which was hailed by the media as ‘the Crime of the Century,’ Crowe’s abduction of Edward Cudahy Jr. is believed to be the first kidnapping in the U.S. in which ransom money and victim were safely exchanged.
It is a crime motivated by revenge. Crowe and his buddy Billy (William Cavanaugh) stopped working for Edward Cudahy Sr. to open their own butcher shop and, when it failed, Crowe held his former employer responsible.
Snatching Eddie off the street while the boy is running errands, Crowe and Billy take him to their hideout and keep him blindfolded and chained to a chair until their ransom demands are met. After collecting the money, they eventually release him and manage to elude the authorities and Pinkerton bounty hunters for five years.
By getting away with some of Cudahy’s money, Crowe does ‘something that every poor sonofabitch in the community wished they’d done themselves but didn’t have the gall.’
During the ‘five years of lawlessness’ following the kidnapping, Crowe gives a fantastical account of his life on the run with his accomplice and former business associate. He has ‘robbed banks and stolen diamonds,’ looted the entire town of Shinbone, New Mexico, after locking up the marshal in his own jail, ‘nearly killed three police officers in a Cicero gunfight’ and ‘fought with the rebels in the Second Boer War in South Africa.’
In one summer alone, they commit ‘more bank robberies than the Jesse James and Cole Younger gangs combined.’ Among their ‘other litany of crimes’ are some graphically described murders perpetrated by the ruthlessly savage Billy – during one bout of violence, he slits a store owner’s throat so deeply that her ‘whole head nearly came off at the neck,’ and then shoots a hole so wide in her husband that he can ‘see clear through it to the other side of the wall.’
Drunk and deranged for the most part, Billy is a pathetically vile reprobate, eager to execute his adversaries with a bullet in the back of the head, but unable to handle himself in a fistfight and reliant on Crowe’s protection and guidance.
The plucky and resourceful Crowe, on the other hand, is a particularly fearsome creation. Charming, witty and articulate when he wants to be, he is more often a bawdy, despicable rogue. Hilleman portrays him as a somewhat likeable, almost sympathetic figure. He is at times compassionate, at times even heroic, saving two Comanche women from a wildfire and coming to the aid of an old South African woman who is persecuted by two odious British soldiers.
At the end of his life, as he limps around a ‘squalid flophouse’ looking as ‘thin as a fish line’ and stinking ‘worse than breechclout,’ living in poverty while recovering from a stroke, he is a different man again, reflective and repentant, haunted by guilt for ‘the kidnapping of a child.’
Pitiful as he is, it is difficult to get past the abduction of Eddie, a crime that captured the imagination of the public, making front page news throughout the country and leading to a massive manhunt and heavily publicised trial. Crowe’s threats to the boy’s father, detailing the many horrifying things he will do to the boy should the father not comply with their demands, seem all too real.
‘We will put acid in his eyes and blind him,’ writes Crowe in his shocking ransom note, and judging from the conversations between the two abductors, there is every reason to believe they would act on their threats.
Loosely based on true events, World, Chase Me Down is largely fictionalised, and the author’s version of events is so thrilling that the reader immediately becomes engrossed in Crowe’s dramatic tale and looks forward to each extraordinary chapter of his life.
Gory, violent and occasionally shocking, Hilleman’s novel is also darkly comic, moving and extremely entertaining. A standout work of fiction.
(Penguin Books, paperback, £13.99)