Charlie and the Angels
By Alex Caine
Random House Canada, 258 pages, $30
Judging by the latest true crime offering from Quebec-born writer and former undercover police agent Alex Caine, no one can hold a grudge like a biker.
Detailing a conflict between the notorious Hells Angels and the lesser-known, but equally (arguably more) powerful Outlaws Motorcycle Club, Charlie and the Angels is an interesting and detailed look into the history of these two gangs, and a rivalry that dates back over 60 years.
Caine even ventures into Manitoba, where the Hells Angels' one-time reign has been replaced by a different kind of gang culture.
The "Charlie" of the title is the deceptively friendly name of the red-eyed skull on the Outlaws' patch logo.
Caine spent over 25 years as a contracted agent, cosying up to Asian triads, the KKK, the Russian Mafia and biker gangs including the Hells Angels and the Bandidos (who he wrote about in his previous book, The Fat Mexican).
"I ran into a few Outlaws in those years -- a few the hard way," he writes, noting that he's witnessed the fighting between the two largest criminal organizations first-hand.
While working undercover, he even took part in the Bandidos' mediation of the Outlaws and Hells Angels 1984 conference in Sturgis, S.D., a legendary -- and rare -- sit-down between the rivals.
While he gives the history of both gangs, he dedicates more space to the Outlaws, which he says is "now the largest motorcycle club in the world, bar none."
The Outlaws formed just outside of Chicago in 1935 as the McCook Outlaws Motorcycle Club. At the time they were really just a group of motorcycle enthusiasts who liked to party hard. The Angels also weren't fully a criminal organization when they started in California in the 1950s, but that soon changed for both clubs.
While both are ruthless, Caine says there is a core difference between the two clubs. The Outlaws "are outlaw bikers first, criminals second. ... With the Angels, the reverse is true," he writes.
If Caine seems to go easier on the Outlaws, it's likely because, if the legends are true, it was the Angels who started the bitter rivalry by senselessly beating the Outlaws and snubbing their suggestion of an alliance in the 1950s. He offers other theories as to how the war started, but notes this is the most accepted one among biker circles.
To this day one of the Outlaws' mottos is "ADIOS (Angels Die in Outlaw States)".
Caine takes us through tales of assassinations, car bombings and beatings that span the globe.
In Europe, he says, police have a harder time fighting gangs because undercover operations and infiltrations are not legal there. In North America, these operations have been essential in major gang takedowns, such as Project Retire, a three-year Canadian initiative that led to the arrests of 60 Outlaws and associates across Canada and into the U.S.
Caine gives a lot of space to the clubs' activities in Canada, which appeared to start in the East in the late '60s/early '70s (the Outlaws were dominant in Ontario, while the Angels had more control in Quebec).
He dedicates a full chapter to the Hells Angels' rise and fall in Winnipeg, which he calls "the key to the West and its rich drug markets."
There was a point, about a decade ago, when Hells Angels president Walter Stadnick saw Winnipeg as a major strategic point to expand throughout Canada. However, Caine notes the takedown of several high-profile Hells Angels in Winnipeg in 2006 led to the rise of the city's mostly aboriginal street gangs, a clear example of how gang culture is evolving.
Multicultural and ethnic gangs may be the future of the criminal underworld, Caine says.
"They have several things going for them," he writes of Manitoba's native gangs. "One, of course, is several centuries of warrior culture, followed by two centuries of oppression. From a gang perspective, that is a magic formula."
Charlie and the Angels suffers a bit from Caine's not including more of his first-hand experiences with the clubs. A section on his final job as an infiltrator -- where he went to Australia to learn the biker politics police couldn't figure out -- which almost led to him being killed, is very compelling, but too brief.
However, Caine already covered the bulk of his own story in his first book, Befriend and Betray. Here instead, he offers a comprehensive overview of the violent biker brotherhood subculture.
And along the way gives a few stories of other police agents and informants and the worlds they risked their lives in.
Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer.