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Originally published Thursday, March 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Go Down Together:" the real, true story of Bonnie and Clyde

"Go Down Together" is Texas author Jeff Guinn's intensively researched history of the saga of celebrated criminals Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, much of it based on material never before released to the public.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Go Down Together:

The True, Untold Story

of Bonnie and Clyde"

by Jeff Guinn

Simon & Schuster, 480 pp., $27

At 2 o'clock in the morning of May 22, 1934, a six-member posse hid in the brush along a narrow dirt road near the town of Gibsland, in northeast Louisiana. At 9:15 a.m., they ambushed a gray Ford V-8 sedan carrying two of the nation's most celebrated criminals. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were killed instantly by automatic-rifle fire — 150 rounds in 16 seconds — and given no chance to surrender. Their own guns were in the back seat.

Clyde had stopped at Ma Canfield's in Gibsland and bought sandwiches to go. Some witnesses said they were bologna, some said BLTs. Bonnie was wearing a red dress. Clyde had on a blue suit, a western dress shirt and a hat. Clyde was hit first and Bonnie screamed "a long shrill wail that would haunt the men about to kill her for the rest of their lives."

Jeff Guinn relates Bonnie and Clyde's heyday of robbery and killing, their remarkable flight from justice and their grisly ending, in such careful detail that you might wonder if he's making it up. He isn't. "Go Down Together: the True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde" is the product of remarkable research through letters, diaries, memoirs, police and FBI reports, and interviews with family members. Much of the material has never been made public before, according to the publisher. Guinn's notes on sources run 55 pages.

Forget what you've heard or read (or seen in the laughable 1967 movie) about a glamorous young couple pulling off brilliant bank robberies, outsmarting and killing their pursuers.

There was no glamour. They slept in their car and on the ground, often wet, cold, dirty and hungry. There was no brilliance. These were bumbling kids, so bad at their profession that only the general ineptitude of Texas lawmen let them keep running for almost two years until one determined former Texas Ranger made it his full-time job to track them down and kill them. The pair killed 11 people, according to Guinn, but almost always in panic and desperation and, except in two instances, with no plan.

Clyde Barrow comes off as a money-loving, hot-tempered 22-year-old who had tried hard work but found it a lot less fun than armed robbery. The first person he killed was a fellow inmate who raped him at a Texas prison farm, where he was doing time for car theft.

Bonnie Parker, 19 when she started running with Clyde, was blamed for a number of killings but seems to have taken part in only one. She envisioned herself as an actress and poet, and wrote many pages of (awful) verse during her career as a criminal.

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Guinn wastes no sympathy on either of the two. However, he gives their lives and those of their families a context that helps explain the outcome. In Clyde's formative years, the Barrows huddled in the slums of West Dallas. In a gathering of shacks, they were the family without a shack; they slept under the wagon young Clyde's father used for picking up scrap metal. The boy's growth from chicken thief to car thief to bank robber to killer seems, in this setting, somewhat unsurprising.

But it was not inevitable. Guinn finds basic dignity, generosity and loyalty among the Barrows and Parkers. Both mothers were strong, honest and religious. Perhaps the saddest story of all is the parents' resilient hope — until that May morning 75 years ago — for some miracle that would reform their young desperadoes into the decent, loving kids they thought they remembered.

Bob Simmons spent more than four decades as a full-time broadcast and print journalist. He is a former commentator for KING-TV and former writer for the Seattle Weekly.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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