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Review: Trevor Cole’s The Whisky King is a superb work of historical non-fiction

Title
The Whisky King: The Remarkable True Story of Canada’s Most Infamous Bootlegger and the Undercover Mountie on His Trail
Author
Trevor Cole
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
HarperCollins
Pages
493
Price
$34.99

Trevor Cole is a rat bastard.

Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against the guy personally. In fact, I don't know him from Adam.

My sources tell me he writes novels. Good ones, too, if you judge by all the high-class prizes and nominations he gets. I'm talking Governor-General's, Writers' Trust, Stephen Leacock, IMPAC Dublin, in addition to about a million national magazine awards.

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No, I'm steamed at this Cole character because he's horning in on my territory. See, I write non-fiction – always have. Lately, I tried my hand at what the highbrows call narrative non-fiction, in the historical vein (which isn't as easy as it looks, but more on that later). The period I zero in on – don't ask me why, maybe it's because people seemed to have more drama in their lives back then – is the twenties and thirties. And the characters I like aren't the Scottish bankers or nation builders the Canadian history books are full of. What revs my engine are the really interesting mugs, such as Morris (Two-Gun) Cohen (a brawler from the East End of London who became a general in the Chinese Nationalist army by way of Wapella, Sask.) and the Nazi triple-agent-cum-Buddhist monk, and former Protestant missionary to the Jews of Montreal, Trebitsch Lincoln.

See, I was thinking my next magnum opus would be about the most interesting characters who ever trod the asphalt of this frigid, WASPy land: the high-stepping bootleggers, moonshiners and rumrunners who supplied hooch to the parched Americans, and the underpaid Canuck Dudley Do-Rights hot on their tails.

Now, along comes this novel-writing Trevor Cole with The Whisky King. Not only is this 450-odd-page brick (almost 500 if you count the index and notes and all that jazz, and I most definitely do) all true, it also happens to be about an Italian-born Mountie and his nemesis, the King of Bootleggers. A character who, it turns out, called Hamilton – where half of my family is from – his HQ.

So you could understand that I might be inclined to be somewhat critical of this particular tome. Right off the bat, I'm looking for the mistakes newcomers to the whole non-fiction field – my specialty, you'll recall – tend to make. I'm not talking typos; every book's got those. I'm talking egregious cases of overstepping. Such as when the writer tries to jazz things up by putting thoughts and words in the mind of whoever's being writing about – as if he or she could ever really know. I figure that Cole, being a novelist – a natural-born maker-upper – is going to be guilty of colouring outside the lines right from the get-go.

But no. This Cole guy knows what he's doing. Turns out he's put in his time in the newspaper morgues and the archives, and, before putting pen to paper, consulted with the best – Charlotte Gray, Erik Larson, Charles Foran, Ken McGoogan, that gang of straight shooters. The few times he tries to liven things up with a little storytelling, he sticks with the facts and tells you exactly what he knows and doesn't know. (And believe me, that ain't easy to pull off while keeping the reader's attention.)

It doesn't hurt that the facts in question are so incredible. The book starts in 1923 with a late-night shootout on the Parkdale waterfront that leaves John Gogo, son of a petty gangster, dead, and the Hattie C., whose hold is filled with bottles of Corby's whisky, riddled with police bullets.

Next thing you know, it's 1904, and we're on a dock in Naples – where the man who will be Gogo's boss, a goodnatured if slightly crooked Calabrian named Rocco Perri, is on his way to "l'America" (well, Canada, but close enough). Meantime, the man who will bring him down, Franco Zanetti (later Zaneth), son of a cabinetmaker from Lombardy, is on his way to Springfield, Mass., and then to Moose Jaw. After failing miserably as a prairie homesteader, Franco falls in with a Pinkerton operative who will launch his career as an undercover Mountie specializing in the Black Hand, the 'Ndrangheta and other manifestations of Italian entrepreneurship in the New World.

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Rocco comes off as a pretty likeable character, at least at first. Using Hamilton as a base, he builds a bootlegging empire by adeptly exploiting twists in Canadian law that allow liquor to be exported from (but not consumed in) Ontario. Unlike his American colleagues, he won't allow his men to carry guns; they make do with souped-up Fords and REO Speed Wagons.

"Maybe you do not know there is such a thing as principle among bootleggers," he tells a young Toronto Daily Star reporter who knocks on his door. "Yes, we admit that we are bootleggers but we do our business on the level."

Of course, it would be easier to accept Rocco's self-assessment as a Robin Hood, adroitly filling a social niche in a new land by bucking an absurd law, if so many people around him didn't end up dead. His rivals tend to finish face-down in a secluded swamp on the road to Guelph, Ont. In 1926, 44 people will die agonizing deaths after a load of Rocco's whisky is contaminated with 93.9-per-cent pure wood alcohol. ("A beverage so powerful," an investigating pharmacist will report, "that it would cause poison if applied to the skin externally.") And his partner in crime and romantic interest, a Jewish woman who he has lured from her family in Toronto's impoverished Ward, turns out to be a nasty piece of business. Obsessed with adding to her collection of diamond bracelets and solitaires, Bessie Starkman makes the mistake of steering the organization into the morphine and cocaine business.

Let's just say that things don't end so good for ol' Bessie.

Rocco's story has been told before, and the author acknowledges his debt to the 1987 King of the Mob, by James Dubro and Robin Rowland, and Antonio Nicaso's 2004 biography. Cole's version, though, is given narrative momentum through the parallel story of the driven, if scandalously ill-paid, Mountie who, through dogged grunt work, will eventually bring the whisky king down (though not in the way you might think). Franco Zaneth, an upright man in a world of crooked customs agents and local cops on the take, also provides a welcome counterweight to the stereotype of Italian immigrants as gangsters and black marketeers.

So yeah, The Whisky King is a really, really good book. If I were in a generous mood, I'd even be inclined to write the perfect pull-quote. Something like: "What a story! The Whisky King has got it all: poison hooch in blind pigs, liquor orgies with double-crossing dames, shootouts in chicken coops. This is superb non-fiction, by a writer at the top of his game."

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Ah, what the hell – you can use that quote, Cole. Turns out I am in a generous mood. 'Cause, see, I got my own 100-per-cent Canadian, Prohibition-era scoundrel up my sleeve, just waiting to be written about.

And he makes Rocco Perri look like a boy scout.

Taras Grescoe is the author of Shanghai Grand: Forbidden Love and International Intrigue on the Eve of the Second World War. Follow @grescoe on Twitter.

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