979-8987750803; 308 pages
Austin writer Thomas Goodman's debut novel, The Last Man, seizes the reader on page one and doesn't let go even after the story ends.
This well-written, well-structured tale offers a fictionalized account of one of Texas's most infamous crimes, the deadly holdup of a bank in Cisco, southwest of Fort Worth, on December 23, 1927. It also details what happened afterward to each of the four robbers. The real-life crime took place at a time when "an average of four banks were hit each day in Texas" and the Texas Bankers Association was offering a $5,000 reward for each dead bank robber, Goodman points out in his author's note.
During the Cisco armed robbery, a bandit dressed as Santa Claus entered the bank first, soon followed by three armed accomplices. Their supposedly quick-and-easy armed robbery scheme collapsed into chaos after two bank customers escaped and sounded a warning. Several law enforcement officers and armed citizens arrived and exchanged furious gunfire with the robbers as they made their short-lived getaway. The melee left Cisco's police chief, a deputy sheriff, and one of the robbers mortally wounded and numerous other people injured.
The four bank robbers have been described on websites and in previous books, including Texas writer A.C. Greene's The Santa Claus Bank Robbery. In Goodman's new work, they are presented as fleshed-out characters with good and bad qualities. In real life, justice came to each of them in a different manner, and these are key aspects of the novel, as well.
Accomplice Louis Davis, a family man who had been promised some quick, much-needed money, died from his wounds. Henry Helms, an ex-convict, was executed in Texas's electric chair in 1929. Another ex-convict, the robbery's Santa-disguised instigator, Marshall Ratliff, was initially sentenced to ninety-nine years in prison and given the death penalty at a new trial. Feigning insanity, he was returned to the Eastland county jail, only to be pulled out by a mob and lynched.
And the bank job's designated driver, nineteen-year-old ex-convict Bobby Hill, received a ninety-nine-year sentence. He later escaped prison three times but was recaptured each time. Just after World War II, he was pardoned and released. Hill typically gets little mention in modern articles, often published at Christmastime, recalling the crime. But Goodman considers him "the most intriguing character of the four bank robbers," adding "Hill's escapes and pardon deserve to be part of the story and not just a footnote or an afterword."
That said, the author does not glorify any of the robbers in this entertaining work of true-crime fiction. Instead, Goodman has deftly brought his characters to life by using historical sources such as police records, trial summaries, news articles, interviews, and other research material as well as his vivid imagination. He keeps his story moving at a steady pace, with an emphasis on short yet rich sentences, taking readers through each surviving robber's trials, incarcerations, and interactions with guards and other prison inmates.
The work offers an eye-opening look at crime and punishment in Texas nearly a century ago. In some readers' minds, this book may raise new questions about twenty-first-century justice, incarceration, prison reforms, the death penalty, and ex-convicts’ reintegration into society.
The Last Man is smooth, engrossing, entertaining reading, from start to finish.
Thomas Goodman first ran across the story of the Santa Claus Bank Robbery when he lived in the small Texas county where it all took place. He currently lives in Austin, where he has been able to conduct extensive research on the true crime at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. The Last Man is his first novel.