Slippy McGee, sometimes called The Butterfly Man

March 5, 2007

After enjoying Marie Conway Oemler’s A Woman Named Smith so much, I had to read Slippy McGee. And it’s a lot sappier, and less action-packed, but equally charming.

Now, if you had to guess at the profession of a man named Slippy McGee, what would you guess he did? I didn’t guess beforehand, but when I found that he was a safecracker, it wasn’t much of a surprise. What is surprising is that, with a name like that, other criminals took him seriously.

Slippy McGee is narrated by Father Armand Jean De Rancé, a Catholic priest. He lives and works in the town of Appleboro, South Carolina, where most of the ordinary townspeople are protestant, but a lot of the poor people who work at the mill and the factory are Catholic immigrants. One day a couple of them bring an injured man they’ve found to De Rancé. The man’s leg has to be amputated, and while he’s recovering, he stays at the Parish House. De Rancé soon realizes that the man is the famous safecracker, Slippy McGee, but he doesn’t say anything about it to anyone, and the two of them decide that henceforth Slippy will be known as John Flint.

The book is at its best when De Rancé is describing the slow reformation of the former safecracker. The Padre’s hobby is butterflies, and Flint starts to help him mount them–because he’s got the skillful hands of a safecracker–and gradually comes to know so much about them that he writes books and is made a member of several societies of entomologists. I love it when characters in books are experts on things, so that bit made me particularly happy. He also helps reform the town, endears himself to dogs, immigrants, and small children, and, in a heroic feat of safecracking, brings together the young lovers. All books should have heroic acts of safecracking.

The young lovers are where about a third of the sappiness comes from. Another third is De Rancé’s religion, and another is the heaps of praise bestowed on John Flint. Hey, I think he’s pretty cool, too, but enough is enough.

Now, I doubt many people are reading this. And I don’t really expect a large audience. I’m having fun. But I’d love some feedback. What do you like to hear about? Are there things you want to hear about these books that I’m not telling you?



  1. When is this book from? It sounds like almost a prototype of Damon Runyon’s lovable-hood stories. Have you read Runyon?

  2. I’ve never read Runyon, but I’ve heard of him. Slippy McGee was published in 1917, which, as far as I can tell, is only shortly after Runyon started publishing.

  3. Runyon was a reporter doing the Broadway beat, and I think the majority of his fiction was written in the twenties and thirties. If you’re looking for heroic — or at least lovable — acts of safecracking, Runyon is your man.

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