Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Reviews: Off Color, Impaired Judgment

Off Color: The Violent History of Detroit's Purple Gang
by Daniel Waugh
Although the Purple Gang has passed into infamy and is mostly forgotten now, for a brief period of time it was probably the most violent, if not the most powerful or largest, organized crime group in Detroit and the surrounding areas of south east Michigan.

The Purple Gang had a spectacular rise and fall from its post WW1 beginnings to its Prohibition ascendancy and its slow decline in the thirties and forties. This decline was helped along by lethal internal squabbling, the growing power of the Detroit Mafia or "Partnership", and the utter inability of some Purple Gang members to adapt to new ways of doing business. 

The Purple Gang was a very loose knit conglomeration of primarily Jewish gangsters who engaged in various crimes, including but not limited to burglary, auto theft, hijacking, labor racketeering, bootlegging, narcotics importation and trafficking, murder for hire, extortion, and bookmaking among others. In a time before mass transit by airplane Detroit gangsters were uniquely positioned to bring whiskey across the river and lakes from Canada. Organized crime groups in Detroit supplied high quality (and sometimes not so high quality) liquor to their counterparts across the Midwest and East Coast. They had a few violent conflicts with the Detroit Mafia but many more business dealings. The Purple Gang hijacked more whiskey than they made or imported. 

Off Color details the genesis of the Purple Gang in Detroit's Little Jerusalem neighborhood where members got their start robbing pushcarts and icemen, doing home break-ins and performing assaults or worse for money. Later the nucleus of what would become the original Purple Gang, centered around the four Burnstein brothers (Abe, Joe, Raymond and Izzy), hooked up with gangsters/disreputable businessmen Charles Leiter and Henry Shorr. Shorr and Leiter, among other ventures, supplied sugar for citywide liquor distillation. Their headquarters was the appropriately named Oakland Avenue Sugar House. 

To an extent Leiter and Shorr were initially the legitimate leaders or at least less violent faces of the Purple Gang. But if they were ever the undisputed bosses, that era ended in 1934 when Shorr went on a ride with some of his gangland friends but never came back. Though the Purple Gang always had a very loose hierarchy with fluid membership, the Burnstein brothers, especially Abe, became the acknowledged first among equals. It wasn't healthy to cross the Burnsteins.

When people think of organized crime cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago come to mind. Well those cities weren't the only places organized crime flourished. Off Color details how different the cultural expectations of the time were, not just in the obvious racial or ethnic conventions and protocols but also the gender ones. For example, shortly after a gangland murder when an infamous Purple Gang hit man is stopped and questioned about fresh bloodstains in his car's backseat, he cavalierly explains the blood away by saying it was nothing serious, he just smacked his girlfriend too hard. The police let him go.
Waugh, a Detroit native, has written an extremely detailed book. It's probably a little bit too detailed at times. Sometimes it reads like a version of Dragnet. On such and such a day at 9:23 AM Hyman shot his former friend Paul twice in the stomach and once in the chest before dropping the .32 revolver and proceeding up Woodward to the Blue Cheer diner where his boss Simon was waiting for a report. And so on. But as a Detroiter who grew up in the general area which was once the Purple Gang's home turf, I enjoyed reading about all the things which happened in neighborhoods or streets with which I was intimately familiar. 

The Collingwood Massacre, which had the same local impact as the more famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, occurred within a short walking distance of my home. One of the participants in that crime was arrested on the very next block from where I grew up. Off Color also delves into the relationship between the Purple Gang and several corrupt police officials, judges, politicians and prison officials. When one of their benefactors was threatened by the possibility of a state senator testifying, the Purple Gang murdered that state senator. Off Color gives the lie to the idea that Detroit only became corrupt in the seventies. The entire police department was for sale to people like the Purples. 

The book is just under 300 pages but it is lavishly detailed with a massive number of footnotes and photographs. It can be somewhat repetitive in that one wonders why the various victims of (occasionally literal) back stabbings and one way rides would ever get into a car with certain people or let other people into their home but to paraphrase Henry Hill, your killers come to you with smiles and hugs.

This is a worthwhile historical view of departed time. I didn't know that Shorr's son later became the owner of a noted local electronics audio shop. The smarter Purples (e.g Abe Burnstein) went semi-legitimate or completely straight, parlaying their ill gotten gains into stocks, bonds and businesses. Still others became decidedly secondary associates to the burgeoning Mafia. Most of the other Purples wound up where most criminals do, in prison or murdered by their "friends". 

Impaired Judgment
by David Compton
Sometimes you can find books in used bookstores that while they aren't exactly the missing Great American Novel, certainly are worth picking up. Impaired Judgment is a political thriller/mystery/legal procedural novel which probably won't make you bounce out of chair in surprise but will keep you turning pages to see what happens next. It's a great book to read while you're waiting to get your hair cut, have work done on your car or pick someone up at the hospital or airport. It was a little over 400 pages but it was a pretty quick read. Although it was written way back in 2001, the characters, especially some of the men, are written such that they could easily fit in today's headlines. Jim Candler is the newly elected President of the United States. He's a Virginia native who has big plans for the country. He's nothing if not a straight shooter. President Candler's wife Paula is a federal judge. Paula, with Jim's fierce support, has declined to resign from her position as judge. She doesn't think women should give up their careers for their husbands, no matter what the husband's job may be. Del Owens is President's Candler's primary political adviser, his Karl Rove, his Valerie Jarrett, his Walsingham all rolled up into one. Del doesn't like the idea of Paula keeping her job. He thinks it sets a bad precedent and makes the President look weak. Del can't really express this to the President any more but still lets Paula know every chance he gets. Del knows where all the bodies are buried. And he always has one eye on the latest polls. Tony Remalli is a fugitive Mafia boss who's wanted for labor racketeering and the murder of a female federal judge. When he's arrested and arraigned most people in law enforcement consider it a forgone conclusion that he will be found guilty and receive the harshest sentence possible. This is even more the case when Judge Candler, not known for being soft, is assigned the trial.

But although Remalli may look like a dumb thug you don't reach his level of power without having more than muscle in your toolkit. Remalli's ace in the hole is the defense attorney Don Russ. Russ may be a "mob lawyer", but he tries to tell himself that he's upholding a more important principle. In any event both Russ and his beautiful investigator Julia Menendez will stop at nothing to win their cases. And they've found some dirt on Judge Candler, something so explosive it could destroy her husband's Presidency before it even has a chance to start. Battle is joined. And some secrets will be revealed. As mentioned, the story moves pretty quickly. This may be fast food but it's good fast food. If you like thrillers or mysteries this is a decent book to have in your library.
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