Dillinger by Ovid Demaris

I decided to do something a little different for this review-I read a book that was written before Capote wrote “In Cold Blood”, just to see what books about crime with a historical bent looked like. Plus, I picked this one up for a dime at a used book sale, so I couldn’t resist.

Dillinger, by Ovid Demaris was definitely eye-opening, but not because it puts forth any unique information, but because it’s a grand example of what I’d call “pulp non-fiction”. It’s quite obvious most of the dialogue came directly from the brain of the author, Demaris and not from any real source.

In addition, there are, here and there, what today would be fairly innocuous lurid sexual details of the relationship between Dillinger and his girlfriend, Evelyn Frechette that just scream “we’re here to sell books!”

Frankly, this nndb.com article about John Dillinger was more informational than the book was in its entire 170 pages, and is a lot more concise, of course.

One thing neither the book nor the above-mentioned article touch on is the heated debate surrounding Dillinger’s “alleged” death in an alley near The Biograph theatre in Chicago, Illinois in 1934. (To be fair, the book predates the controversy, which was put forth in the book Dillinger: Dead or Alive, which was published in 1970, nine years following the publication of the Demaris book.)

The controversy, which is nicely summed up in this Crime Library article, is basically that because of the extensive plastic surgery Dillinger had late in his life would have made it very difficult to positively identify him, and that some details in the autopsy do not match up with what is known about the gangster (from Wikipedia):

  • None of his scars were mentioned in the report.
  • The corpse had brown eyes. Dillinger’s were grey, according to police files.
  • The body showed signs of some childhood illness which Dillinger never had
  • The body showed a rheumatic heart condition, yet according to the later testimony of Dr. Patrick Weeks–Dillinger’s physician at Indiana State Prison–Dillinger could not have suffered from this disease as he was an avid baseball player while in prison and had served in the Navy.


  • The body was positively identified as John Dillinger by his sister Audrey, through a scar on his leg received in childhood.
  • The mistake concerning the corpse’s eyes may have been an error on the part of the coroner, resulting from eye discoloration caused by a traumatic head wound.
  • The FBI has at least two sets of post-mortem fingerprints of the dead man. Though scarred by acid, the prints were clearly identifiable as those of John Dillinger.

Back to the Demaris book, though-it’s a little surprising that Demaris, who was a UPI reporter at one point, would be so sensational in his telling. But by another token, it was before Capote changed the genre with “In Cold Blood,” and Dillinger was considered, in his time, something of a Robin Hood-robbing banks during the Great Depression, a story lending itself to lurid detailing-a talent at which Demaris seemed to be very adept.

As a footnote to this review, I had forgotten that old paperbacks used to have advertisements in them. This book contained one for Kent cigarettes, which I found really more amusing than the book itself. Here is the first page of the advertisement:

But the great part is the second page, where you can use your Kent box end-flaps to purchase any of these super-attractive kitchen items:

I don’t know about you, but I’m jonesin’ for that popcorn popper. Only $9.95 with ten Kent flaps!

Published in: on May 4, 2007 at 2:18 am  Comments (10)