I love Tom Hanks. Leonardo DiCaprio is pretty fantastic, too. The film version of Catch Me If You Can was brilliant, in my opinion. Now, I am a firm believer in reading the book before seeing the movie, but I didn’t do things in that order this time, and I think my reading of Catch Me If You Can by Frank W. Abagnale and Stan Redding (Grosset & Dunlap, 15.99 USD) suffered for it. In fact, I can’t help but compare the two, so that’s how I’ll write this review.


It didn’t help that the book was released in 1980 (I read it as part of the “Read a book that came out in the decade you were born” part of the Book Riot Read Harder 2016 Reading Challenge), the events of the book took place in the 1960s, and the author (while brilliant) committed the crimes documented here beginning at the age of 16, with not even a philosophical understanding that women are equal to men. Fortunately for my feminist sensibility, Abagnale does catch on (somewhat) over the course of his crimes, such as when he dated flight attendants (stewardesses, or “stews,” in the dated vernacular of the book):

“I loved them for their minds.

The rest of them was wonderful, too. But for the first time I was more interested in a girl’s knowledge of her work than in her body. I didn’t object, of course, if the one came with the other.” (51)

Like I said: somewhat.

Regardless of how much of a lech this 16-year-old criminal genius turns out to be, you have to admire his genius. He did his research, and then he did more research, and then he observed his marks in their natural habitat, soaking in every detail. Abagnale boasts, “A newsman who did a story on me noted, ‘A good con man reads sign like an Indian, and Frank Abagnale would have made the best Pawnee scout on the frontier look like a half-blind tenderfoot.'”

The logical outcome of all his research and observation was a great deal of confidence. Not that Abagnale seemed to be lacking in confidence before he interviewed top airline brass (posing as a high school newspaper reporter), read every book about aviation he could get his hands on, and slept with half of Pan Am’s “stews,” but it definitely didn’t hurt, as he successfully spent years pretending to be a Pan Am pilot, cashing fake Pan Am checks, and enjoying all the respect and attention than being a pilot brought. Abagnale was almost nabbed after hitching around 200 deadheading flights on various airlines by an unusually observant air traffic controller, but he managed to convince sheriff’s officers that they had the wrong man simply by acting outraged at the mere suggestion that he was not who he seemed to be.

Abagnale also successfully convinced people that he was a licensed pediatrician, qualified to teach a college course in sociology, and produced enough fake checks to spend years enjoying a lavish lifestyle on the run from law enforcement. Abagnale walks a line between matter-of-fact and boastful as he recounts his exploits. His explanation of how he staved off being caught for his bad checks is both fascinating (he designed them to ensure extra days of rerouting across the country, as the address of the bank and the check’s city of origin as indicated by the routing numbers were always on opposite coasts) and indicative of simpler times. With the extra technology used for security, as well as the usual requirement of a driver’s license (which is now harder to fake) to cash a check, I can’t help but wonder if Abagnale could pull off a scam with such endurance today.

After a couple hundred pages of Frank Abagnale getting away with everything, it grows a bit tiresome. Unlike the movie, the autobiography is just, hey, I did this awesome thing, and this awesome thing, and another really awesome thing, and I got away with all of it. The story is one-sided, and we don’t get to see the frustrated G-man trying to track him down. The addition of Tom Hanks as a composite of several FBI agents assigned to catching Abagnale was, I now believe, what took this interesting biography and made it a brilliantly acted movie. I didn’t cheer the “real” Frank Abagnale on as much as I did Leonardo Dicaprio’s depiction of him, and unlike the movie, I wasn’t bummed out when he got caught in the book – the possibility of getting caught in the book seemed more like a distant possibility than an actual problem, to the extent that I wanted to see Abagnale taken down a peg or two by the feds.

Although his story is certainly interesting, it seems that the fictional Abagnale is far more appealing than the real one. Part of this is because Hollywood smoothed out his personality, part of it is because Hollywood condensed his exploits into a snack-sized package, and much of it, I’m sure, is because the real Frank W. Abagnale looks nothing like Leonardo Dicaprio.