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Book Reviews Review: Dean Jobb’s Empire of Deception chronicles the thrilling tale of swindler Leo Koretz

Title
Empire of Deception: From Chicago to Nova Scotia – The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation
Author
Dean Jobb
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Harper Avenue
Pages
336
Price
$29.99

Let's start with a man named Lou Keyte. Sometime in the late 1980s the journalist Dean Jobb found that name in a drawer of index cards at Nova Scotia's public archives. Keyte styled himself a literary figure for the brief time he lived in Halifax, buying up an old hunting lodge and sprucing it up for countless parties filled with beautiful women and visitors agog at the wealth on display. Keyte dropped the right names and looked the part of a bookish man, with the hat just so and a beard not out of place in contemporary Brooklyn. He was wealthy, sought-after, connected.

Except Empire of Deception isn't about Lou Keyte at all. Keyte's life might make for an interesting but familiar essay nestled in the back pages of a literary magazine. Keyte's true self, Leo Koretz, on the other hand? His life and exploits are fodder for the thrilling, too-wild-for-fiction tale Jobb's been bursting to tell for more than 25 years, a story that had me exclaiming some variant of "that's bananas" more often than I care to count.

Koretz, you see, was a swindler operating in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century, and quite good at his chosen profession. He was a Jewish émigré from the Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia, arriving in 1887, at the age of 8, to a city whose population doubled to a million during that decade. He was remembered by high school classmates as someone "who could get blood from a turnip" and largely did, until he learned of Panama's Bayano River and a development plan. He invested his own money only to be swindled.

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That a friend of Koretz had vouched for the swindler stuck with Koretz, who said: "[It] taught me how easy the suckers can be made to fall, and that the closer they are to you the harder they will fall." Not only did Koretz swear never to be taken in again, he stole the swindle and perfected it over more than 15 years without drawing suspicion. The best way to describe Koretz's Bayano plan is if Bernie Madoff had dreamed up Bre-X, where the lure was far-off oil and the prospect of untold, ever-increasing returns. Or if Abraham Cahan's David Levinsky, while rising from the ghetto to the top, had taken even more ruthless shortcuts.

Koretz had the advantage of an unassuming appearance ("average height, five foot nine, and a tad overweight at 170 pounds") in combination with eyes that "could peer straight into a person's soul" – just the sort of confidence trick to cajole upwards of $2-million American dollars (at least several orders of magnitude higher in today's currency) from equally or more wealthy types, old money or nouveau, to invest in his scheme. "Investor by investor, [Koretz] created an exclusive club of loyal, trusting insiders, each one carefully sized up in advance" Jobb describes, including many, many members of Koretz's own family, at least a half-dozen members of his synagogue, and the congregation's rabbi.

"His stockholders were all hand-picked, guaranteed not to wilt, fade or doubt, absolutely trusting friends and relatives. An outsider couldn't get in," remarked a Chicago financier after Koretz was finally caught, one of many examples of Jobb's wonderful ability to find just the perfect quote from the time frame. But the catching took years, and long after Koretz disappeared from Chicago. He was 44, a diabetic without access to insulin, tired of hustling, aware the bubble would pop on his financial misdeeds and extramarital affairs. With tens of thousands of dollars in his pocket, Koretz fled to New York, then to Nova Scotia to start anew, while fire and brimstone raged back in Chicago. Family members were in ruins, facing investigation by federal and state authorities, and the media, populated by the likes of Ben Hecht, sniffed the blood that gushed from weeks of front-page news.

Koretz – like Madoff, Allen Stanford and other notorious swindlers of future generations – understood the soft sell always worked better. That making a potential investor feel like he was the only person privy to an exclusive, private operation is better than strong-arming. The Bayano scheme gets appropriately brisk treatment in Empire of Deception, as Jobb is more interested in aftermath, from the nervous breakdown of Koretz's wife, Mae, to the bewilderment of those he swindled to, later, the flabbergasted feeling of Nova Scotians who did not, in fact, have a literary figure in their midst.

This later part of the narrative has an extra spring to it that the Chicago backstory does not. Whether it's because Jobb alighted upon it first is hard to judge. But he shrewdly compares Koretz, as Keyte, to Jay Gatsby, then dispenses with it as he "seemed to have an eye for every young, attractive woman he met in Nova Scotia." Despite the inconsistently dyed beard, the ladies loved him – or Pinehurst Lodge, or his money – in return.

But such public spectacle had a price, and Koretz's luxurious life on the lam came to a halt not even 18 months after it began. And just when you think the end is more like a sad collapse – confession, conviction, imprisonment – Koretz has one last surprise left. Reading Empire of Deception was like getting on the storied Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island – opened the very year Koretz was caught – holding your breath throughout its peaks and valleys, then getting out of the car, flushed and shaken, only wanting to ride it all over again.

Sarah Weinman is the editor of Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s forthcoming from the Library of America.

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