Reviewed by Wendy Hawkin
This novel verges on epic. Structured into four books, spanning two years and 549 pages, Emily Schultz splices the stories of several manipulators of the late 1920s Detroit scene into one intricate dance. It’s a South Lake Fizz. Rum runners. The water on which they “walk” borders two nations: the Detroit River. Like Jesus, they are in some ways saviours, as they shuttle liquor across the water from Canada to the dry United States during Prohibition.
It begins in December 1927, when the empty car of one of the rum runners is discovered beneath the ice. The driver, Alfred Moss, is missing along with the load and the cash. Did he drown as everyone suspects? Or did he take the loot and run? The doors of the Model T had been removed to avoid just such a calamity, and no body surfaces. Still, there’s a hole in the ice the size of a Ford. It doesn’t take long before we discover that Moss promised to pay “The Doctor” Ernest Krim three grand to fake his death and ship a suitcase to one Alphonse Novarro in New York City. Moss is fond of changing his identity and is, as it turns out, the hub of this wily wheel.
It’s a challenge to sort the good guys from the bad. The Purples are clearly antagonists and actually ran the scene in 1920s Detroit. A Jewish gang led by the Bernstein Brothers, they rule by violence, like Negan’s Saviours in “The Walking Dead” and give our small-scale hoodlums a hard time. But, they take such an emotional back seat to the other characters, they don’t seem so bad. Sure, they beat, shoot, steal, and take a “chunk of their cheese” but they don’t conjure up much angst. They’re just a historical fact. On the other hand; Alfred Moss and his partner, Reverend Charles Prangley are just plain evil.
Several strong female leads dominate the story and make choosing one protagonist impossible: Rosine, a charming French-Canadian woman who runs a brothel with her lover, Kitty McCloud; Prangley’s clever and efficient secretary, Faye McCloud; Alfred’s lover, Gin Ing, an intelligent woman from Chinatown with daddy issues; and Elsie Moss, Alfred’s “widow” who has a baby (father unknown) and will do whatever it takes to survive.
The main character seems to be Krim, “the Doctor” (actually, a pharmacist) but I’m not sure. Krim is an honourable criminal. He only agrees to assist Moss because he needs the promised $3,000 to put his mother into psychiatric care. She thinks her head is made of glass. He’s a World War One veteran who fought two years in the trenches, didn’t drink then and still doesn’t. Then, there’s young Willie Lynch who’s only sixteen and seeks vengeance for his murdered father. Once Alfred’s friend, Willie feels responsible for Elsie and her child.
This is a character-driven story that keeps me turning pages because I need to know one thing: how and when will karmic justice arrive for Alfred Moss and Reverend Prangley?
Emily Schultz is an acclaimed poet who paints pictures with words:
“Gabriel sighed and put down his fountain pen. His eyes were the color of rock underwater and, unlike his bridge-building brother Frank, his face was pale as a baby’s, as though he never saw daylight. He was closing in on fifty, but proud of the tuft of reddish curls atop his face. He knew he was thin enough that there was something youthful about him. Someone had told him once that his cheeks looked as though they’d been permanently pinched. His eyebrows were like whispers, and like his older brother he had a strong, straight nose than ran down the center of his face” (399).
According to family legend, Schultz’s great uncle Alfred went through the ice on the Detroit River with a load of whiskey. Perhaps, rum-running is in her blood. Conjuring the grease and glamour of the 1920s, Schultz dances us through jazz clubs, brothels, garages, back alleys in New York City and Chinatown, and across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit to Windsor. One of Elsie’s lovers, Frank Brennan, is the engineer for the bridge which connects Canada and the United States and opened November 15, 1929, just after the crash. Mingling historical fact with intense imagination, Emily Schultz builds her own bridge over nine decades.
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada (Penguin Random House), 2017
Wendy Hawkin writes urban fantasy with a twist of murder. To Charm a Killer and To Sleep with Stones are the first two books in her Hollystone Mysteries series with Blue Haven Press.