Book Review: Finder Keepers by Mark Bowden

  • Finder Keepers – The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million
  • by Mark Bowden
  • Publisher – Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Copyright – 2002
  • 209 pages

Rating – 9/10

Review – What would you do if you found $1.2 million? It really happened to a Philadelphia man in 1981. The money fell out of an armored car, Joey Coyle found it – and never seriously considered turning it in. Mark Bowden tells this remarkable tale in Finders Keepers.

Bowden first wrote Coyle’s story in a three-part, 1986 series in the Philadephia Inquirer’s Sunday magazine. In the years that followed, Bowden became a “name” journalist with the success of 1999’s Blackhawk Down. Finders Keepers has the feel of a quickly-published, “reheated” version of Bowden’s 1986 series for the Inquirer. But it doesn’t matter because – wherever it came from – Finders Keepers is a terrific read.

Everyman

For readers, Coyle is a frustrating protagonist. Bowden details Coyle’s dire circumstances before he found the money; Coyle’s desperation drove him to conclude that the money was his only big chance in life. (Keeping the money was a crime; in Pennsylvania, anyone finding anything worth more than $250 was obliged to try to find its owner). In 1981, Coyle was 28, a high school dropout who could find little work on Philadelphia’s docks. He still lived in his mother’s house. Methamphetamine, which he’d injected so often that the veins in his arms were collapsing, took his meager income. (In fact, when Coyle found the money he was on the way to his drug dealer’s house in the car of two friends who agreed to give him a ride).

After finding the money, Coyle’s decisions were awful. First, he “stiffed” the two friends who were with him, giving them nothing. Then, while the story was front-page news in Philadelphia, Coyle told dozens of people about it, some of whom he barely knew. Even worse, Coyle contacted a local mafiosi, the brother of Philadelphia’s best-known gangster (Harry “The Hunchback” Riccobene); Hunchback’s brother took a few hundred thousand off Joey’s hands, promising to take it to Las Vegas and “clean” it. Finally, Joey went on a wild spending spree, passing out hundreds, and going to Atlantic City’s casinos – all while binging nonstop on speed (to the point that he never slept).

But for all of that, Coyle is still, in some ways, likable. We’ve all known people like Coyle – those with “good hearts,” but very bad judgment. In a twist, being a likable “screwup” – an everyman – actually helped Coyle as the case unwound.

Bowden the Penman

Simply put, Bowden is a terrific writer with a terrific story. The pacing of Finders Keepers is perfect, as Bowden provides enough detail to make the story work without letting it bog down. He also has a good sense of detail, choosing facts that make the story “come alive.” Here, from the book’s opening pages, is how Bowden describes Joey’s neighborhood, South Philadelphia in 1981 –

His home on Front Street was at the tattered edge of the tight matrix of South Philly’s streets. To the west was the neighborhood’s strong, nurturing core, its churches, schools, markets, and corner restaurants, and bars. It was the oldest part of the city, low houses in row after brick row, most of them just two stories high. Kinship was sewn tightly in its even blocks. Brothers lived across the street from brothers, fathers from sons and nephews and grandsons. In the narrow alleys folks would grin at the way they could sometimes see in the awkward way a boy ran or squinted or threw a ball the reflected image of his grandfather or great-uncle. When a man from South Philly said he knew a fellow ‘from the neighborhood,’ it meant something more like family than an acquaintance. South Philly was Catholic. It was proud and superstitious, pragmatic and devout.

The world had changed around South Philly. The jobs that had built it were mostly gone. … Out Joey’s back door, to the east, was… a wasteland, a vast expanse of weedy, trash-piled lots, junkyards, old brick warehouses defaced with graffiti, the discarded remnants of a once thriving port and manufacturing giant. Rusting hulks of old boxcars crouched in forlorn rows… [they were] between the fenced-in lots around the trucking yards and dwindling industrial works along the Delaware River waterfront. (pp. 4-5)

(South Philadelphia is almost as much a star of this story as Joey Coyle).

Hollywood Touches

Bowden includes an excellent followup that completes the tale. (Hollywood eventually got interested & based an unsuccessful John Cusack film on the case). While Bowden tells us what became of Joey after 1986, I wish that he had updated readers on some of the other characters.

The End

So, what would you do with the $1.2 million? Bowden strongly suggests that Joey was never going to get away with it, no matter what he did. But Joey’s story is still terrific.

Finders Keepers reminds you of why you love nonfiction. Novels are great, but real life is better than any fiction. Finders Keepers is short and terrific – find a copy and read it.

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About mobilemojoman

I have been a Mobile resident for about a decade. Working as a college professor keeps me off the streets and pays the bills. I am married to a woman (the MojoWoman) who is a much better person than I am and we have two beautiful girls who keep us both jumping. My interests are varied - food & drink, sports, politics, exercise, books, travel, Mardi Gras, and all of life's rich pageant. In the future, I'd like to learn more about sailing, photography, Cajun/Creole cooking, making beer and wine, and writing.
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