In 1900, a meatpacker named Pat Crowe decided he’d had enough of being a poor working stiff. So he kidnapped the son of his boss, successfully obtained a $25,000 ransom, and went on the lam. For this, he has occasionally been heralded as a Robin Hood who committed the “crime of the century.” Now he’s getting the literary treatment.
World, Chase Me Down (Penguin; $16), by Andrew Hilleman, is the fictionalized story of Crowe’s real criminal adventures. The novel is written as a firsthand account from Crowe, based on autobiographical work, books, and newspaper articles written about him. The book is a thrilling read, and considering how closely the plot hews to real historical events, it’s a testament to Crowe’s well-earned place among America’s legendary criminals.
The story begins when Crowe follows his sister to Omaha, Nebraska, to work as a meatpacker for the beef magnate Edward Cudney. There, he meets his best friend and partner in crime, Billy (who Crowe saved from being beaten to death) and his wife (who Crowe first encounters in his sister’s brothel). When he opens a butcher shop and starts a family, Crowe runs into trouble with the bosses who control the city’s meat industry.
Crowe makes a break by kidnapping Cudney’s son in 1900 and demanding a ransom—or else. “We will castrate him surgically with a pair of elastrator pliers so that he may never bear children. The Cudney line will end with him,” Crowe writes to his former boss in the novel. Once Crowe and Billy take off after successfully gaining ransom for Cudney, they’re hunted across the globe—from Japan to South Africa—with a $50,000 reward on their heads.
It’s action the whole time, much like a Louis L’Amour western. Thankfully, Hilleman explores and even revels in Crowe’s character flaws. Crowe has a surprisingly noble stream of consciousness that tends to strive after righteousness, but his actions are usually crude. He continually visits brothels and drinks into a stupor. His interactions with others are always rough and selfish. He borrows money and doesn’t pay it back and laughs at a shopkeeper when Crowe’s horse ruins a well-maintained storefront. He uses coarse language with the mayor and his sister.
His fallibilities make Crowe all the more compelling—and makes his criminal activity more transparent, if not condonable. Throughout the book, Crowe is driven by revenge, ambition, and the continual search for a better life, but he is continually duped by his pride, lust, and tendency to compromise. In real life, he was rumored to go by the creed, “The simple, honest life? That game ain’t worth the candle. Being miserable ain’t the same as being good.”
World, Chase Me Down is Hilleman’s first book, though we hope not his last. The adventure and gunfights sustain the story, but Hilleman isn’t too self-serious and lightens things up with wry humor throughout. “Most folks call it the ‘Crime of the Century,’” Crowe says at one point. “I don’t know if it was all that. A feller by the name of Adolph Hitler is causing quite the sensation in Poland.”
It’s a quick read that only gets tedious when delving into Crowe’s sexual ambitions with prostitutes around the world. And Hilleman uses the expected western drawl, but lightly, only to liven up the dialogue. “You think I get along all by my own gumption? What’s got you all bollixed up?” his sisters asks him. “You’re getting fleeced,” he tells her. A little cheesy, sure, but it makes the book a fun read.
In real life and in the novel, the law caught up with Crowe several times but could never hold him. He turned himself in on October 2, 1905, in Butte, Montana, after laying out the conditions of his surrender in a letter, which read, as quoted in the New York Times, “All I want is justice, a fair trial by twelve men, citizens of Douglas County, Neb. Not by Herod or any of his kind. Their god is gold, and with that power they rule the world. Donahue [the sheriff who lead the manhunt], all I ask is a square deal. Grant my request, and I will give myself up.”