Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review of Whiskey River by Loren Estleman (Scribners, 1990)

Detroit, the late 1920s/early 1930s. The city is a melting pot of people drawn to its industrial base.  The start of the Great Depression has added a desperate edge and prohibition has led to a thriving underground scene of speakeasies and bootlegging, with gangs bringing liquor across the Detroit River from Canada or setting up their own breweries. Competition is fierce, with regular deadly fights over turf and markets, overseen by a corrupt police force as interested in kickbacks as keeping the peace. Constantine (‘Connie’) Minor is a tabloid columnist who made his name working the crime beat. He’s met and written about the city’s major criminals and has built up a level of trust with them. In particular, he has formed a bond with a young, charismatic hoodlum, Jack Dance, who invites him to take part in a whiskey run across the frozen river. Subsequently, Dance uses Minor as a go-between, swapping the journalist’s supposedly neutral position to deliver messages for an inside track on breaking stories. It’s an odd relationship, with Dance being ruthless and unpredictable, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, and Minor hiding his excesses to protect his source of exclusives. While ‘Joey the Machine’ and the Unione Siciliana seem to be playing a long game, Dance lives in the moment, taking evermore risks to take a larger share of the bootlegging business.

Whiskey River is the first novel in the Estelman’s ‘Detroit’ series, with each novel focusing on a key aspect/event in the city’s history in the twentieth century. In this outing it’s the late 1920s/early 1930s and the focus is on the operation of criminal gangs and their on-going battles with each other and the law. The story is told in the form of a testimony by Connie Minor, a syndicated tabloid columnist, at a grand-jury investigation into police corruption held in 1939. Minor’s recollection focuses mainly on the life and death of Jack Dance. Dance is a young criminal and schemer with a faulty moral compass, high ambitions, an unpredictable nature, and an inner energy that makes things happen. He has no respect for the established criminal or legal order and is prepared to take on both. Minor is drawn into Dance’s world and is trusted by him, allowing the journalist access to the life of a hoodlum. To ground the tale in the history of the city, Estelman mixes in a number of real world events including a couple of murders and political machinations. To create atmosphere, the tale is told in style of an earlier gangster movie or Raymond Chandler novel, with some nice observations, witty one-liners, and at times sparkling prose.  The result is a character-driven story of Detroit’s underbelly during prohibition, of warring criminal gangs, corrupt police, and a society reeling from the Great Depression. The only niggle is use of a narrator, which seems to put a bit of distance between the reader and the unfolding story. Otherwise, Whiskey River is a fascinating and engaging piece of historical crime fiction.

1 comment:

Mathew Paust said...

The late Ed Gorman frequently praised Estleman on his blog, but I've not yet read him. This one is enticing.