Prairie Prohibition novel a taut treat
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In his debut novel, Toronto-based lawyer James Arnett tells a compelling story set in rural Saskatchewan during the Prohibition era.
It takes place in the town of Bienfait, located along the U.S. border near Estevan and known colloquially as “Bean Fate.” While it is a work of fiction, the story concerns the investigation of a real murder — that of Paul Matoff, brother-in-law of notorious Winnipeg- and Regina-based bootlegger Harry Bronfman. Matoff was shot through the window of a CPR station in 1922, but the murder was never solved.
Based on Saskatchewan lore that Al Capone and fellow U.S. mobster Dutch Schultz were in the area around that time, Arnett weaves the famous gangsters into the tale.
The fictional protagonist, Jack Ross, is a small-town cop who is unaware of the corruption in his local government that has allowed the town to become a major stop in the illegal export of booze to the United States.
At first the character seems a bit clichéd, as the lone honest official in town, but his flaws — insecurity and a possible addiction to marijuana — soon make him more believable.
There is also a love triangle between Jack and two other fictional characters, a schoolteacher named Kate and a cowboy known as “Stud,” that turns dark and eventually pushes Jack over the edge, along with the local officials interfering with his murder investigation.
At just over 200 pages, it is a brisk read and feels a bit like a Canadian counterpart to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire.
For Winnipeggers who like a bit of local history, there’s quite a bit to enjoy here, with the notable Bronfman family and former Winnipeg mayor A.J. Andrews among its characters. The Winnipeg Tribune also plays a role, and part of the action takes place at the Royal Alexandria Hotel, which stood at Higgins Avenue and Main Street until the early 1970s.
It’s worth noting that Arnett tries to present a realistic vision of the era, but that, of course, includes some racial slurs and cultural attitudes that might be hard for readers to take. He also addresses this in the book’s foreword.
Arnett was born in Winnipeg (he’s the father of actor Will Arnett) and has degrees from the University of Manitoba and Harvard Law School. He’s previously written articles for newspapers, magazines and law journals, but this is his first work of historical fiction.
Apart from a few overly long stretches of dialogue that might be better suited to a screenplay, Bean Fate doesn’t feel like a first-time effort. Overall, it is well-written, well-researched and quite absorbing — especially if you’re interested in Prohibition or little-known pieces of Canadian history.
Alan MacKenzie is a Winnipeg-based writer and communications professional.