Prairie Prohibition novel is a tense treat – Winnipeg Free Press

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In his first novel, Toronto lawyer James Arnett tells a gripping story set in rural Saskatchewan during Prohibition.

It takes place in the town of Bienfait, located along the US border near Estevan and known colloquially as “Bean Fate”. Although 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 smuggler Harry Bronfman. Matoff was shot through the window of a CPR station in 1922, but the murder was never solved.

Based on the Saskatchewan lore that Al Capone and fellow American mobster Dutch Schultz were in the area at that time, Arnett weaves the famous mobsters into the story.

Fate of the bean

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 hub in the illegal export of alcohol to the United States.

At first, the character seems a bit cliche, as the only honest city official, but his flaws – insecurity and a possible marijuana addiction – 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”, which turns dark and ends up pushing Jack over the edge, with local authorities interfering. with his murder investigation.

At just over 200 pages, it’s a quick read and looks a bit like HBO’s Canadian counterpart. Boardwalk Empire.

For Winnipeggers who enjoy a bit of local history, there’s plenty to enjoy here, with the notable Bronfman family and former Winnipeg Mayor AJ Andrews among its characters. The Winnipeg Grandstand also plays a role, and some of the action takes place at the Royal Alexandria Hotel, which stood on Higgins Avenue and Main Street until the early 1970s.

It should be noted that Arnett tries to present a realistic view of the times, but of course this includes racial slurs and cultural attitudes that might be difficult for readers to accept. He also talks about it in the preface of the book.

Arnett was born in Winnipeg (he is the father of actor Will Arnett) and graduated from the University of Manitoba and Harvard Law School. He has previously written articles for newspapers, magazines and law journals, but this is his first work of historical fiction.

Apart from some too long dialogues which would perhaps be better suited to a screenplay, Fate of the bean doesn’t look like a first effort. Overall, it’s well-written, well-researched, and quite engrossing, especially if you’re into Prohibition or little-known bits of Canadian history.

Alan MacKenzie is a writer and communications professional from Winnipeg.


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