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The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen

It’s the 1930s in the height of the great depression, millions are out of work and bands of bank-robbing outlaws are regarded as folk heroes in the USA. Former public enemy number one, John Dillinger, has recently been sent to his grave and stepping up to the top spot on the G-Men’s wanted list are the infamous Firefly Brothers.

As the book opens, Jason and Whit Fireson wake up to find themselves laid out on tables in the morgue. They’re both riddled with bulletholes, they should be dead but somehow they are inexplicably alive …

Jason stood, the tile cold on his feet, and stared wide-eyed at Whit. He reached forward and hesitantly touched his brother’s stubbly left cheek. It felt cold, but everything felt cold at that moment. He grabbed the sheet that lay up to his brother’s neck, waited a moment, and slowly began to pull it down. In the center of Whit’s chest, like a target, was what could only be a bullet wound.
As he took in this sight he breathed slowly – yes, he was breathing, despite all the metal he must be carrying inside, clanging about like a piggy bank – and leaned forward in grief, involuntarily putting his right hand on his brother’s biceps. It flexed into alertness, and Whit’s head turned toward Jason. Whit’s jaw was clenched and his brows quivered. Then his eyes darted down.
‘You’re naked,’ Whit said.
‘That hardly seems the most noteworthy thing here.’ Their voices were hoarse.
White sat up, still staring at Jason’s pockmarked chest. Eventually his eyes shifted down to his own body, and he lurched back as if shot again, nearly falling from his cooling board.
‘What …?’ His voice tailed off.
‘I don’t know.’
They stared at each other for a long while, each waiting for the other to explain the situation or to bust up at the practical joke.

So the Firefly brothers get a miraculous second chance. The next thing for them to do is to let their folks know they’re not dead – complicated, as they know their Ma, younger brother, and their lovers will be watched. Jason is desperate to get some money to his Ma and misses his heiress girlfriend Darcy terribly, but until they can work out what happened, who sold them out and get some more money it’s a problem – they’ll have to play dead for a while.

The one person missing here is the brothers’ Pop, who didn’t approve of the life Jason and Whit chose to live, yet ultimately ended up on the wrong side of the law himself. He was however a profound influence on both of them, and Mullen tells his story and how the boys became bank-robbers in between the current day episodes as the Firefly brothers try to sort things out and carry on with their ‘endeavours’ as they call the heists, and the all too real possibilities of getting shot again.

This is much more than just a gangster novel, although there are some great set-pieces involving typical gangster types with appropriate nicknames such as ‘Brickbat Saunders’, and Darcy as the rich girl who likes a bit of rough was great value. Beyond the fun, Mullen explores the hard times that punctured the American Dream and produced the bad boy heroes. The Fireson family dynamics and the sibling rivalry between the three brothers features strongly, giving the novel that epic generational feel, dare I say it, akin to The Godfather, (although Pop is no Don Corleone). Jason is a real charmer and a thinking-man’s hoodlum; he justly takes the starring role, and gave this period-thriller solid substance which made it a pleasure to read. (8/10)

Pub 2010 by 4th Estate. 397 pages.  Book supplied by the publisher after sounding me out. Thank you.

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