1506 The time-lock bandits
Under an Outlaw Moon
by Dietrich Kalteis
Toronto: ECW Press, 2021
$19.95 / 9781770415478
Reviewed by Alma Lee
This book might never have been written. Dietrich Kalteis was researching for another book and came across the intriguing story of Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson. How could an author resist telling this tale of tragic innocents caught up with robbing banks during the Great Depression?
One could dismiss this book as another Bonnie & Clyde story – but not so. Bennie and Stella Mae Dickson are a different kettle of crime entirely. It may be mythology, but Bonnie & Clyde are portrayed as hardened criminals. What is different and engaging in Kalteis’s tale is the simplicity of the characters and their backgrounds.
They seem like quite normal folk – Bennie is a young man bent on becoming a lawyer. He is well read, recites poetry, is attractive and good looking. He also makes a bit of money on the side trying to become a professional boxer. He’s also quite a flirt and manages to catch the eye of Stella Mae at the local roller skating rink. Stella Mae is different – older in her mind than her actual 15 years, a misfit who has a fantasy life.
It’s easy to like these two. They are quite innocent really, although Bennie has been in jail he doesn’t seem to have been hardened by it. It’s clear he has fallen hard for Stella Mae.
Kalteis gives good dialogue. There are deeply affecting scenes between Stella Mae and her mother and Bennie and his father. We learn that these relationships are special to the two main characters. Stella Mae, for example, has a good chat with her mother about Bennie, and Mum sets her straight about men and relationships. It is a very telling conversation about how close they were.
Kalteis portrays Bennie less sympathetically. He is a user, always thinking of himself and how he can capitalize on any given situation. Stella Mae lives in a young girl’s fantasy world. In spite of their differences in age and intellect, it’s clear they love each other.
There were times when I wondered where the story was going, but about a third of the way through the book the page turning begins. Left at home, Stella Mae receives a letter containing enough money for her to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles to join Bennie.
The writing picks up and conveys her excitement, which the author ensures we share. Unfortunately by the time Los Angeles comes into play Bennie is pretty much a full time petty thief – stealing from laundromats and gas stations and making a pittance from fights. When Stella Mae arrives he has to figure out how to share a life with her and find a place to live, and a way to survive. It’s the Great Depression and jobs are hard to find so Young Bennie turns to where there is money – banks!
Kalteis rolls with their adventure. The first robbery takes place in a small town called Elkton in South Dakota. This scene had me holding my breath. Unfortunately for “Bad Luck Bennie,” as I began to think of him, when he gets to the bank, gun in hand, to hold it up he has to wait for a time lock on the safe in order to steal the money. Is he going to hang around till the safe opens or just scarper and call it a day? Without giving a spoiler, the two young lovers are now bank robbers on the run.
During their time at large in stolen cars they drive through strange parts of the mid-west. Kalteis provides little description of the landscape, creating only the impression of a bleak and poverty-stricken area of the Midwest.
They go visit family. These scenes are moving if a bit unreal since neither can let on to their family what they have been up to. Until the money runs out, they live quietly and peacefully. Once again we are distracted from thinking of them as criminals. Inevitably another robbery is planned, but same story: time lock on the safe. You’d think Bennie might have considered this. They wait for the time lock to open the safe and this time the haul is much bigger. They become known as the Time-lock bandits.
Their destiny involves the newly formed FBI, a chase across state lines and the attention of John Edgar Hoover, who declares them public enemies number one. Not a great position for Bennie and Stella Mae to be in. This is really where the page turning accelerates nicely. Fast running out of money, Bennie plans yet another robbery, leading to the inevitable conclusion.
Reading this whole section my sympathies were with Bennie and Stella Mae. They never seemed like hardened criminals, just two young folk who had taken a wrong turn, and certainly not deserving of being named public enemies No. 1. They only robbed two banks and the total take was around $60,000 – not a great fortune! They just wanted enough to get by.
Thanks to Dietrich Kalteis, I shared another view of tragic choices made during a tough era. Although Under an Outlaw Moon sometimes flagged, I empathized with his depiction of a young couple trying to live a decent life in the midst of poverty and despair. My sympathies were with them all the way through the story.
Given what we know today about John Edgar Hoover, it’s also interesting to contemplate what on earth motivated him to be such a hard case himself. But that’s another story.
Alma Lee was the founder and first Artistic Director of the Vancouver Writers Festival. She is, needless to say, an avid reader whose “guilty pleasure” is reading crime fiction. She was also the founding Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada and of The Writers’ Trust. She also worked as an associate producer in charge of script development at Universal Studios when they had a production office in Toronto. She currently lives in Vancouver and, although no longer at the Vancouver Writers Festival, she continues to read – and to be involved with the literary community. Editor’s note: Alma Lee has also reviewed books by Sam Wiebe, William Deverell, and C.C. Humphreys for The British Columbia Review.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
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