Reviewed by BERNIE BELLAN
It’s been 14 years since Allan Levine last brought us a Sam Klein mystery novel. In the interim period Levine has busied himself writing non-fiction, including the book for which he is probably best known within our community: “Coming of Age: A History of the Jewish People of Manitoba”, which was published in 2009.
In his latest book though, Levine uses his vast knowledge of Manitoba history to create what is not only a thoroughly engrossing mystery, it’s also quite a revealing glimpse of a period rife with violence and corruption.
“The Bootlegger’s Confession” is set in 1922 – a time when Prohibition had recently been enacted in the United States, and when fortunes were being made by bootleggers using Canadian border towns as the staging points from where they could quickly bring illegal booze into the very thirsty U.S. market.
The action begins in the fictional town of Vera, Manitoba, where local general store owner Max Roter is mixed up in the bootlegging business. It doesn’t take long for the first of what turn out to be a series of murders to take place, and it’s not until the very end of the book that we find out who’s behind the various murders. Of course, that’s what you’d expect in a mystery, isn’t it?
What made this book even more tantalizing for me is trying to figure out which characters might have been inspired by real people. Two of the central figures are the “Sugarman” brothers, of whom one – Saul, bears a passing resemblance to the legendary Samuel Bronfman. (To be honest, I asked Levine how much Saul Sugarman was inspired by Sam Bronfman, but he insisted that it’s only a superficial resemblance.)
Saul Sugarman is indeed ruthless. What’s more, he has his eye on Sam Klein’s lovely wife, Sarah. (In fact, many of the female characters in “The Bootlegger’s Confes-sion” are described in quite attractive terms. Hey, those are our grandmothers you’re writing about, Allan!)
As the plot develops and Sam Klein is called in to investigate the murder that’s occurred in Vera, he finds himself immersed in what turns out to be a war between bootleggers. But, it’s not just a straightforward war between rumrunners, Sam soon realizes. There’s also a crusading teetotaler by the name of Reverend Vivian who may or may not be responsible for much of the violence that transpires. As well, various other characters that seem to be aligned with one or another of the possible villains have shifting allegiances.
In fact, keeping track of the dizzying array of characters is one of the challenges in reading this book. There are characters with WASPish sounding names like Frankie Taylor, Jack Smythe, Commissioner McCreary; then there are characters with Jewish sounding names such as the ones I’ve already mentioned, along with a host of others, including a butcher named “Lunger” (who is obviously named for the late Ben Lungen, owner of Lungen’s Meats). There’s also a character named Shayna Kravetz. Originally I thought that somehow Allan had known that there is an actual person by the name of Shayna Kravetz and that she was one of the late Rabbi Kravetz’s daughters.(Shayna was a classmate of mine, and is now a Toronto lawyer.)
It turns out though that it was a complete coincidence that Shayna Kravetz became the name of a character in "The Bootlegger's Confession". Here is how Allan explained how he came up with that name: "it is a play on my daughter-in-law’s name, Shannon Kravetsky!" As well, "Shayna in the book is paired with Klein’s assistant, Alec Geller (ie. my son’s name is Alexander) so hence you have Alec and Shayna (or Alexander and Shannon!"
As enjoyable as the plot is, what is sure to fascinate any Winnipeggers who are interested in the history of this city is Levine’s depiction of 1922 Winnipeg. Much of the book is set in the North End, on such streets as Luxton and Cathedral, and it doesn’t really require a great imagination to picture what Winnipeg looked like over 90 years ago, since most of the streets in the North End described in the book haven’t changed very much.
Then, when the action moves further south, to such sites as the Royal Alexandra Hotel, the old police station on Rupert Avenue, Portage Avenue with Eaton’s and the Capitol Theatre – well, anyone who’s at least a baby boomer should get a kick out of recalling those former Winnipeg institutions. I have to admit thought that I can’t remember the streetcars that used to run up and down Main Street and Portage Avenue, but Levine’s description of them makes me wish they were still around.
I don’t like to reveal very much of the storyline of a mystery novel, so I’m not going to go into any detail as to what happens. Suffice to say that shots are fired, sometimes from different characters aiming at the same targets at the same time. Figuring out who is going after whom is quite the fun of this book.
The first series of Sam Klein mysteries were produced over a five-year period beginning in 1997. Allan Levine developed quite a large following with those books. Now that Sam Klein is back, let’s hope that we won’t have to wait quite as long for the next one.
“The Bootlegger’s Confession”
By Allan Levine
Published November 2016