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book review

John Semley

When it comes to organized crime in Canada, we enjoy a willful naiveté. Gang crime is something that happens down there. Drug cartels dwell even further down there. For most of us, the idea of Canadian crime feels like an abstraction. And, well, to be fair, the most exposure it generally receives are PSAs trumping up the dangers of black-market smokes. Even when news broke that the mayor of Canada's largest city was caught on tape smoking crack cocaine with alleged gang members, there was an undertone of perverse national pride as we all grinned and straightened our proverbial neckties for the international media, like dopey bumpkins in a Leave It to Beaver episode, all "Gee whiz, mister? No foolin'? A real live drug scandal?"

Canuck crime writer Jerry Langton's Cold War is a book that works to dispel the naiveté surrounding organized crime in Canada, while remaining fully in thrall to its sensationalism. But it's hard not to be. The mobster's alchemy of charm, brutality, clan loyalty and blatant contempt of institutionalized authority has long made him a captivating character, both in fiction and in life. Langton describes early Italian-Canadian bootlegger Rocco Perri as possessing "some perhaps grudging respect from the public at large" due to his flashy clothes and cars, and seemingly "untouchable" status in the eyes of law enforcement.

Even when this sense of outside-the-law ostentation is undercut by horrifying accounts of brutality – as in Langton's retelling of the fateful night in March, 1961, when heroin-smuggling bigwig Johnny Papalia beat the owner of a Toronto jazz bar to within an inch of his life – it's tricky not to humour this idea of "grudging respect." This is especially true when the capers Langton is indexing have a provincial, uniquely "Canadian" quality: like the time Montreal mobster Vic (The Egg) Cotroni hatched a plot to sell spoiled meat to concessions at Expo 67. It's hard not to feel those tugs of respect, if not out-and-out pride. They're violent, murderous, conniving, drug-dealing, pimping extortionists. But goshdarnit, they're ours.

The book proceeds from a vaporously slender thesis. As Langton writes in his introduction, "Following the evolution of organized crime in Canada makes it much easier to understand which factors incubate organized crime, what helps it to mature and what prompts it to become more violent." Sure. But by and large, these factors facilitating and nurturing organized crime in Canada rarely exceed common-knowledge cliché: Canadian gangsters capitalized on bootlegging during Prohibition; Canadian crime organizations are closely tied with those in the United States; gang membership is often comprised of members of disenfranchised, down-and-out populations.

Cold War is more of a scantly sourced index of criminality in Canada. From his discussion of early-20th-century Mafia strongholds in Hamilton and Montreal, to the rise of outlaw "1-per-center" motorcycle clubs with names like "Satan's Choice" in the 1970s, to inter-club power struggles, the Charbonneau Commission crackdown on Quebec's political corruption, and the 2012 gang shooting at Toronto's Eaton Centre, Langton provides detailed, lively, often very harrowing descriptions of the viciousness and intimidation that defines Canada's organized crime. He's also got a knack for developing characters, honed, perhaps, by Fallen Angel, his 2006 book-length study of Hamilton Hells Angels honcho Walter Stadnick. Take his description of Michael Sandham. A flunked theology student turned Manitoba cop turned trumped-up martial-arts expert and private security consultant (whose resumé claimed he had protected "Brian Molruney") turned high-ranking member of Winnipeg's Bandidos biker gang, Sandham's a great character in large part because he seems to represent everything about Canadian organized crime. There's that outsider's sense of grudging respect, of being drawn to crime precisely because of its clichés (the leather vests, the revved engines, the women), and the uniquely low-rent sense of aspiration, of wanting to be a part of something. Sandham's the kind of halfway-desperate, halfway-dangerous guy it's easy to imagine Danny McBride playing in a made-for-TV movie.

What trips Cold War up is its lack of cohesion. Langton obviously knows his stuff. But the book advances no real argument beyond, "Yes, there is organized crime in Canada." At times, Langton seems so intoxicated by the major players – especially the biker gangs – that his book lapses into a kind of uncomfortable nostalgia for the "good ol' days." Being a member of an urban gang like the Crips, he writes, "is not like being a Hells Angel. Instead of depending on high-quality recruits and an ability to get others to do their bidding, street gangs rely upon intimidating their entire community and often playing the race card (by portraying police as a tool of white oppression)." It's hard not to read this as racialized, as if the Harley-riding, white-supremacist gangs were somehow better than the modern, multiethnic alternative.

Langton's quite right to suggest that our attitude to organized crime in Canada is often typified in some quarters by a mawkish "it can't happen here!" gullibility. But short of any real argument or prescription – except for concluding that "it's more important that Canadians stick up for themselves." But, how, exactly? And isn't this how organized-crime cartels started? By sticking up for themselves? – Cold War's assault of facts, bar-brawl play-by-plays and criminal nicknames ("Sasquatch," "The Chess Player," "Tony," etc.) reads more like a series of bound-together Wikipedia entries. Worse than making Canadian crime seem sensational or glamorous, Cold War makes it seem altogether boring.

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