Canadians are sometimes guilty of selling themselves short when it comes to the more colourful aspects of their country’s history. The national predilection for “peace, order, and good government” fosters the impression of a comfortably dull past devoid of excitement and upheaval, particularly when compared with the ongoing saga of revolution, civil war, and political assassination to the south. Think, for instance, of Prohibition-era gangland mayhem: the blood-soaked images that instantly spring to mind are of Chicago, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and murderous mobsters.
Who knew that southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe was also a nefarious hotbed of illegal bootlegging, drug peddling, gambling, extortion, roadside slayings, and bullet-riddled bodies sent to sleep with the fishes of the Welland Canal? Or that Hamilton had its own Capone in the implacable form of Rocco Perri, who came to Canada from impoverished Calabria and successfully established himself as a mob kingpin who routinely conducted business with the likes of racketeer Arnold Rothstein, infamous for fixing the 1919 World Series?
Perri hasn’t entirely eluded scrutiny. He was the subject of countless newspaper articles that documented his every move, as well as two book-length biographies. Hamilton-bred novelist Trevor Cole draws on all that material in his entertaining new work of non-fiction.
The subject matter is well suited to Cole, whose CV balances fiction with serious journalistic chops, including stints at The Globe and Mail and Toronto Life. That background serves him well when detailing the symbiotic relationship between Perri and the tirelessly competitive newspapers that splashed his exploits across their pages.
Perri didn’t exactly seek out the spotlight. But, perhaps unusually for an underworld denizen, he gave every appearance of relishing his time in it, an eternal smile pasted across his face as he deflected questions, whether from scoop-hungry reporters or the 1926 House of Commons committee that eventually got around to investigating his extensive network of alcohol and drug trafficking. Cole, whose fiction has earned him a Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, takes special joy in recounting Perri’s calculatedly obtuse testimony in front of the committee. A typically absurd exchange features Perri being asked how much he was paid for a case of booze: “I never pay nobody a case.” “I asked how much you were paid.”
“I never buy any liquor.” “How much were you paid?” “Paid to whom?” And so on.
Perri’s story is rife with classic, tragicomic elements. He left Italy on his own at the age of 16, boarding a ship bound for Boston on the false pretense that he had family in the U.S. Eventually, he made his way to Canada, where, after a few half-hearted attempts to earn an honest living, he began his descent through the criminal underworld. Crucially, he found his Lady Macbeth in the unlikely form of Bessie Starkman, who abandoned her husband, two daughters, and traditional Jewish upbringing to become Perri’s partner in love and crime. Together, the two exploited laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol in both Ontario and the U.S. to amass a formidable fortune, most of it invisibly secreted away. Bessie, the more unflinchingly hard-hearted of the two, assumed greater control of the business while Perri was serving time for perjury. She also shifted the focus from alcohol to drugs. Possibly as the result of a deal gone wrong, she was gunned down in her own garage in 1930. Perri carried on for another 14 years, before adding a further element of intrigue to the story by disappearing from the face of the earth.
If that weren’t Shakespearean enough, Perri’s arc is twinned with the parallel but divergent story of another Italian immigrant, Franco Zanetti, whose Canadian path was as straight and narrow as Perri’s was crooked. After a hardscrabble attempt at prairie homesteading, Zanetti changed his name to Frank Zaneth and became a dogged, undercover RCMP agent, initially infiltrating unions and anti-conscription organizations in Quebec before being set on the bootlegging trail of the Bronfmans and, later, Perri. Zaneth, for all his determination, never quite succeeded in bringing down his elusive adversaries. In the case of Perri, frustrated authorities resorted to interning him along with other Italian-Canadians during the Second World War as an “enemy alien.”
Zaneth’s story is not without its share of interest. There is, for instance, a hint of bias in the way RCMP superiors appreciated Zaneth’s indisputable skill as an undercover operative but refused to compensate him fairly. If there is a quibble with The Whisky King, it’s that Zaneth disappears from its pages for substantial stretches – long enough for the reader to lose track of his supposedly crucial supporting role and to suspect that the rivalry implied by the subtitle has been oversold. But maybe that’s to be expected. Bad guys, even in stuffy, staid Canada, inevitably make for much better copy.