Boring crimes, exciting investigation

Kaitlyn Haney

3.5 Stars

December 7, 2017

Chasing Phil is the story of one of the first major undercover FBI investigations in US history, detailing the crimes, investigation, and prosecution of white collar criminal Philip Kitzer. Starting in the mid ‘70s, Jim Wedick and Jack Brennan embedded themselves in Kitzer’s “fraternity” of con men. Over the next year, the two junior agents followed Kitzer all over the world, listening in on a nearly constant stream of shady deals being made through fraudulent banks.

Some parts of Chasing Phil sound like they’re directly from a movie. Charming con men drinking all day and all night. Mobsters shaking people down for a payment. Phony bank robberies. Elvis Presley’s plane… Kitzer was a larger than life character with a stranger than fiction life than makes for an engrossing read at times. Unfortunately, this level of entertainment is not sustainable. Pages and pages on end of convoluted financial dealings and legal loopholes are about as interesting to read as your last bank statement. Needless to say, I have mixed feelings about the book.

Two things are undeniable. The first is how important this case would prove to be for the FBI and (presumably) other enforcement agencies in the country. Wedick and Brennan began the investigation just as the FBI began to offer training for undercover operations and years before they offered any kind of support for agents returning to their regular lives after an operation. Wedick and Brennan received none of this training. The went undercover using their real names and, while they made an effort to avoid talking about their personal lives in any detail, they remained as close to the truth as they could. They often traveled without informing anyone at the bureau beforehand and relied heavily on their ability to memorize complex details about the illegal activities of their group. With no protocol in place, they had to make it up as the went.

The second is how much work David Howard had to do to make this book as interesting as it was. Even with the quirky characters, the thousands of pages of court testimonies he used as the main source couldn’t have been very exciting. Out of what would have otherwise been impossibly dull material, Howard gives us colorful three-dimensional characters and compelling stories.