Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Purples by W. K. Berger

Reviewed by: L. Gregory Graham

I love this book because it is not history. The Purple Gang in Detroit in the 1920’s was a rough crowd in a bare-knuckle city. They specialized in killing anyone trying to muscle in on their rum running empire. Hardly fertile ground for a novel about people coping as best they can in a hostile world. The gang made millions running booze across the Detroit River from Canada during Prohibition. What this book is instead is a fictionalized remembrance by Joe Bernstein, the head of the Purple Gang. He tells his side of the story glossing over the nasty stuff and making his climb to the top of the Detroit underworld seem logical. In many ways, he casts it more as a career move than anything else.

How did it all start? Supposedly Henry Ford’s Jew hating minions had his girlfriend arrested and committed to an insane asylum. Her crime? Passing out union material at a Ford plant. When Joe leans on the local prosecutor to free her, he finds himself cut up, and thrown into the Detroit River by gangsters who owe the prosecutor a favor. He survives, but barely. Then the killings begin.

Joe surrounds himself with a motley crew of castoffs and social misfits whose talents include intimidation and murder. I swear I went to high school with some of these characters. Joes casts them more as problem solvers than as amoral murders. With his leadership, his brother’s brains, and an inner circle of talented hit men, Joe should be happy ruling his lucrative empire. Alas, he isn’t. His girlfriend comes out of the insane asylum truly crazy, his brother and his chief hit man hate each other, and Joe can’t seem to keep his men from making unsanctioned hits.

Joe manages to keep it all together until a one legged war hero/prosecutor comes to town. Using honesty, compassion, and psychology, tools Joe has no defense against, the prosecutor pits the gang members against each other and gets the convictions he needs.

There are no villains in this remarkable book. Joe is likeable because in many ways he is an American rags-to-riches story. His thugs are scary, but likable because the reader understands them and tolerates them in the same way that you tolerate your weird uncle at Thanksgiving as long as he doesn’t get too strange. Even the war hero/ prosecutor who could have come across with all the wit and charm of an obsessed comic book crime fighter had the insight to marry a warm, charming wife who spends most of the book softening the edges of his flinty character.

Joe is an imperfect narrator at best. He has a genius for manipulating people, but at the same time he is blind to the emotional damage he is wreaking on himself and those around him. His girlfriend dies by her own hand, and he orders the execution of his two best friends leaving him more isolated at the end of the book than he ever was at the beginning. Throughout the story, Joe maintains himself as a hard man living a hard life while subconsciously he seeks the love and approval of others. In fact, the book becomes his justification for his life.

At the end of the book, an Italian gangster supplies the only introspection Joe manages to take to heart. The mobster gives him the reason why the Italian mob survived when the Purple Gang did not. Your people were ashamed of you, he tells Joe, while the mob is looked upon as a career choice among Italians. Shame scatters the Purple Gang once Joe goes to prison. The Detroit Jewish community will not take them in.

Read this book because it is fun. W. K. Berger does a wonderful job of capturing the wide-open feel of the roaring twenties when money is as plentiful as the speakeasies, when radio announcers become the first media stars, and when Henry Ford runs Detroit as surely as any mobster does. Burger captures the spirit of the city when it is small enough to walk around and when the whole city administration can easily fit into a gangster’s hip pocket. Read it because the author does the impossible. He creates a gang novel devoid of stereotypes. The gangsters aren’t slang talking, out-of-control thugs in pinstripe suits. Their girlfriends aren’t simpering flappers. The police aren’t stupid, and the prosecutor isn’t a political hack interested in running for mayor.

Just don’t read this book as history.