The clue to the premise of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is in the title. Thomas Mullen’s novel follows Jason and Whit Fireson, known as the Depression-era bank robbers The Firefly Brothers, as they are killed during a job, only to come back to life. They take advantage of their resurrection to pull off two more bank heists, only to be killed again. Not to worry though, back they come to foil the kidnapping of Jason’s moll, Darcy Windham.
Why are Jason and Whit unable to die? Have they a finite number of opportunities to return to life? And do they have to be together in order to be resurrected? It’s an enjoyable premise exploring the idea of legend and immortality through the messy physicality of literally being unable to die.
There had to be meaning didn’t there? Otherwise it was just pain as pointless as it was ceaseless.
Mullen’s novel plays well on the myths and legends of 1930s gangsters that we are all guilty of romanticising. There is something in the communal psyche that is drawn to characters such as Al Capone or Baby Face Nelson. We watch shows like Peaky Blinders or Boardwalk Empire with divided loyalties, empathising with the human face behind the gangster’s front.
During the depression, the romanticising of these men was even more extreme, for what did people have to look to? They were losing their jobs and their homes and there was no one to look after them, so these criminals became Robin Hood figures, sticking it to the man, even if there were some innocent casualties along the way.
When news got around that the Fireson family had not yet held a funeral or a memorial service that set ablaze the public’s appetite for fantastic stories. More people claimed to have seen the brothers, despite their alleged demise. They were seen robbing banks, holding up gas stations, saving the elderly from burning buildings. They were impregnating ex-lovers, coaxing kittens from flimsy branches, delivering impromptu services at Congregationalist services.
Jason Fireson, the enigmatic, intelligent brother, sees through these tales. He knows he is not a good or brave man, he’s just a man who is good at robbing banks and sees no other way to get by. Whit, the more hot-headed of the two, loves the stories that have sprung up around the brothers
“Thousands will read this article,” Whit had argued after Jason shook his head at the story. “We’ve given them hope, some pride. A story they can tell and hear told”
“What good are stories,” Jason asked, staring at the march, “if people are still suffering?”
Mullen cleverly mixes real life characters into his plot – John Dillinger (whom the public refused to believe had been killed), J. Edgar Hoover and Bonnie & Clyde. By giving his characters actual immortality, Mullen’s story is an enjoyable exploration into why this era in American history generated so many questionable heroes.
His depiction of the effects of the Depression is stark and convincing. From soup kitchens to home repossessions, the day to day hardships of living through such a harsh time are graphically explored.
Wherever they looked, things were crumbling. The bricks in the old factory walls exhaled a fine powder of mortar. Abandoned porches sagged beneath invisible weight. Grass didn’t see much point in growing. Dirt sneezed itself from one side of the road to the next. Street signs had trouble maintaining appropriate posture, their arrows pointing to heaven or hell.
Jason and Whit have a third brother, Weston, the ‘good’ brother who has been left in the wake of his infamous siblings, struggling to make a living when no one trusts his intentions because of his name. He is the flip side of his brother’s coin, a counterpoint to their lawless behaviour. Weston does everything to get by save break the law, unlike his brothers, but as the FBI closes in on him, he may have to turn his back on his family just to survive.
The echoes with the present day are interesting – the similarities between the depression and today’s recession are subtly drawn out. The role of the government in the myth-making of these characters is also highlighted, exploring how they had as much to gain from the mythologising of criminals as the criminals did.
He’d heard the criticism before – that the Bureau was inflating the threat of bank robbers to justify an increase in government power, that Hoover was nothing but a PR man puffing up the exploits of a few country thieves, all the better to frighten a cowering nation into handing a big stick and a blank cheque to its self-appointed protectors.
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is a clever and enjoyable read but is slightly bogged down by too much back story and a few unnecessary characters. The FBI Officer Carey Delaney serves to present the point of view of the law, but doesn’t add much to the action. Darcy’s kidnapping is explained in an unnecessarily complex way and this can have the effect of slowing the pace of what should be a page-turning read.
It is, however, a really interesting conceit and a surprisingly thorough depiction of that myth-making era, which, like the Firefly Brothers, refuses to die.
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