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Melvin Purvis, the famous Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, died in 1960 at his South Carolina home, an apparent suicide. He was 56 years old, and he left behind a wife and three sons. The eldest of those sons, Alston Purvis, is the author of The Vendetta: FBI Hero Melvin Purvis’ War against Crime, and J. Edgar Hoover’s War against Him. Hoover’s life and that of Purvis were inextricably linked in complicated ways. If I were to review The Vendetta for a newspaper in Purvis’ hometown of Florence, S.C., I would treat it largely as a memoir. If I were to review it for a general audience, I would treat it largely as yet another in a string of books on the monstrousness of Hoover. But I am reviewing The Vendetta for an audience of mostly inside-the-Beltway lawyers. So I am going to treat it as something different — an unwitting, superb primer about the twisted nature of government agencies. The FBI was fabled for its discipline and efficiency during Hoover’s dictatorial reign. Purvis, a new lawyer with no attractive job prospects, happened into an FBI position in 1927, despite being younger than the FBI’s guideline of 25 and a tad shorter than the agency’s height requirement of 5 feet 9 inches. Hoover liked Purvis at first, liked him a lot. Wiry, handsome, courageous, and charismatic, Purvis symbolized much of what Hoover was not. Hoover, always image-conscious for himself and the FBI, first believed that Purvis would represent the agency well. So before he was 30, Purvis found himself, in 1932, as agent in charge of the high-visibility FBI Chicago office. The battle of wits between law enforcement officers and high-profile criminals was heating up, and Purvis fit the role of law enforcement hero nicely. With violent, serial criminals such as John Dillinger, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson at large, Purvis played a role in manhunt after manhunt, winning a reputation as a crime-stopper. Hoover wanted a crime-stopper in his midst. But he did not want one who received more favorable coverage than the director. Thus, Purvis unwittingly became the director’s enemy. Along with achieving enemy status, Purvis also learned the lessons of survival in a government agency, the thou-shalt-nots: Do not outshine the boss. Do not make the mistake of thinking those above you are your friends. Do not think public acclaim is a shield against persecution by chain-of-command fiat. Do not stay quiet while being unfairly persecuted. Do not leave a career without a backup plan. Besides working as touching family memoir, biography, primer about the nature of bureaucracy, and chronicle of high-profile criminals, The Vendetta is also social history. Neither Purvis, a graphic design professor at Boston University, nor writing collaborator Alex Tresniowski, of People magazine, is an academic historian. But their sense of history in context is surprisingly acute. For example, they speculate wisely on why two ordinary men, Purvis and Dillinger, whom the FBI agent helped capture and kill outside a Chicago movie theater during 1934, achieved such renown. In the Depression, the public needed heroes and villains without shades of gray. Purvis did not fire the shot that killed Dillinger. Dillinger was no mastermind; if he had been, he never would have been imprisoned as a young man, and never would have attended the movie theater in 1934 without taking precautions against capture. But journalists and their audience shoved aside such inconvenient details. “This collective absorption in the story produced a tidal surge of interest that was well beyond anyone’s understanding or control,” author Purvis writes. “It is not an exaggeration to say the Bureau’s success in stopping Dillinger helped to restore the nation’s faith in its government and, indeed, in itself.” Hoover’s jealousy of agent Purvis became so profound that the director rewrote history (with the help of toadying journalists and Hollywood directors) after dismissing him. Alston Purvis harbored an ulterior motive in undertaking this book — to restore his father’s proper place in history and show up Hoover as a horrible man. For all the wrong reasons, the son has become the author of a first-rate revisionist history.
Steve Weinberg is a freelance journalist in Columbia, Mo.

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