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Originally published Thursday, February 11, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers': Robbing banks and beating the Reaper

Novelist Thomas Mullen's "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" recounts the tale of two bank robbers whose ability to cheat death is mysterious — even to themselves. Mullen reads this week at the Elliott Bay Book Co., Third Place Books and the Mill Creek branch of the University Book Store.

The Associated Press

Author appearance

Thomas Mullen

The author of "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" will read at these area locations:

• At 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

• At 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

• At 7 p.m. Thursday at the Mill Creek branch of the University Book Store, Mill Creek Town Center, 15311 Main St., Mill Creek; free (425-385-3530 or www.ubookstore.com).

Few things are certain in Thomas Mullen's latest novel, including death. "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" (Random House, 416 pp., $26) is set during the Great Depression, when criminals like Bonnie and Clyde, "Pretty Boy" Floyd and John Dillinger became folk heroes for many of the downtrodden who saw banks as the enemy. Life was violent, and so was death. For Jason and Whit Fireson — dubbed the Firefly Brothers by the press — death was also a recurring event.

Mullen follows up his acclaimed debut novel, "The Last Town on Earth," with a mysterious and compelling romp through the 1930s, when the FBI was out to make a name for itself and the world was full of poverty and discontent.

"The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers" opens with a very puzzled Jason waking up befuddled and trying to figure out what's going on: "He was a man well accustomed to waking up in unorthodox positions and in all manner of settings. He'd slept on floors, in the pillowless crevices of old couch frames, amid the nettles and haylofts. ... But this was something different."

Indeed. Jason and Whit, each bearing bloody bullet holes after being on the losing end of a gunfight, awaken in the dirty backroom of a police station where their naked bodies have been dumped. Word of their demise spreads, even as police invent a story of stolen bodies to explain their mysterious disappearance.

Life after death doesn't change much for the brothers. Although their myth grows, bank robbery is still a way of life. Things don't get any easier as they try to sort out what's happening to them — and what caused their apparent ability to cheat death.

Mullen excels in his recreation of the bleak times of the Great Depression, with its bread lines and Hoovervilles, in beautifully descriptive passages.

"The depression was making people disappear.

"They vanished from factories and warehouses and workshops, the number of toilers halving, then halving again, until finally all were gone, the doors closed and padlocked, the buildings like tombs."

In such a world it's easy to understand why the flamboyant Firefly Brothers attract both mythical and popular status.

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