AmericanMafia.com

Feature Articles


December 2004
Strange Fugitive
Introduction to the 2004 edition of Strange Fugitive pubished by Exile Editions in Toronto

By James Dubro, Journalist, Editor, and Free-Lance Writer


James Dubro has been a well -known crime-writer (on organized crime and policing), documentarian and author for the past three decades. He has published five best-selling books, including "Mob Rule" and "Dragons of Crime" and helped to produce many major television documentaries including the famed award-winning CBC television "Connections" series on organized crime and documentaries on organized crime for CITY-TV, "Rough Cuts" and "Witness". He co-authored the definition of organized crime for the “Canadian Encyclopedia." He is the past President of the Crime Writers of Canada (CWC), recipient of the CWC's Arthur Ellis Derrick Murdoch Award in 2002 , and a contributor to magazines as diverse as Canadian Business, Hamilton Magazine, "Xtra", Toronto Life, and Eighteenth Century Life. He can be reached online at jamesdubrobooks@on.aibn.com.

     In the summer of 1923, as a brutal gang war for control of the lucrative bootleg trade raged in Southern Ontario, Morley Callaghan, then a twenty-year old second year student at the University of Toronto, landed a seasonal job as a cub reporter at the Toronto Star. His life was to change dramatically. Within a month he befriended one of the Star's best reporters--Ernest Hemingway. The two shared many literary interests. Hemingway, after reading just one of Morley’s stories told him "You are a real writer; you write big time stuff." Two years later, having read several more of his stories, Hemingway wrote Morley from Paris: "If you want encouragement and backing let me tell you right now and you can cut this out and paste it in the front of your prayer book that you have the stuff and will be a hell of a fine writer and probably the first writer that's ever come out of Canada.” This part of the Morley Callaghan story is well known. 1

     But what isn't known or understood about Morley is that his first novel, Strange Fugitive, published by Scribner's in New York in 1928, grew directly out of his experiences as a reporter at the Star. Whether by direct involvement through interviews, research or writing or just from the intense daily office scuttlebutt, Morley became familiar with the bootlegging scene, the speakeasies and the underworld characters in downtown Toronto in the immigrant “Ward” area.

     A Star man Morley almost certainly met and worked with was Dave Rogers, a young crime reporter working exclusively on the deadly gang war (he also likely met Athel Gow and C Roy Greenaway and other local Star crime reporters). Since editor Harry Hindmarsh, along with publisher Joe Atkinson, had started a platoon system, the saturation treatment of sensational stories in which everyone from reporters to copy editors was thrown into coverage. Callaghan would have been involved, one way or another, in several major stories, especially this one:

     On May 10 1922 Mafia boss Domenic Scaroni had been killed after leaving a mob banquet in Guelph, clearing the way for well known Hamilton Mafia boss Rocco Perri to become the undisputed head of the Calabrian Mafia in Ontario. Perri controlled a large part of the bootleg trade in and out of the province. For the Scaroni killing Rocco Perri used one of his Niagara Falls lieutenants, John Trotta (AKA Trott) who along with Mike and Tony Trotta (his two brothers) was a major bootlegger and booze exporter to the United States. John Trotta was the last man to see Scaroni alive and later also arranged for the murder of his brother Joe Scaroni in September 1922. The policeman investigating the two Scaroni hits was John Trueman of Thorold, and as he was closing in on Trotta, he was himself killed. Trotta was charged with the murder by the OPP. Rocco Perri then paid for his lawyer and sat directly behind Trotta every day of the trial which ended in a hung jury on November 14, 1925. But in a second trial in February 1926, Trotta was convicted of killing Constable Trueman and got a life sentence.

     Within days, more bodies of victims were discovered in Hamilton and the Star editor decided to opt for platoon coverage of the war. On November 17, 1925 a breathlessly florid piece entitled "Mountain of Murder" began with "Hamilton Mountain has become a place of skulls, a mountain of human sacrifice. It is like one of the stone pyramids on which the bloodthirsty Aztec priests cut the throats of innumerable victims...." Another article that day, by Dave Rogers, gave the background for two of the killings and quoted sources as saying that the "king of the Bootleggers" was directly involved.

     Rogers followed this up in a few days with a remarkable exclusive interview with Rocco Perri and his Jewish common-law wife, Bessie who proclaimed that Rocco was "the King of the Bootleggers" and discussed many of the inner workings of criminal mob activity including his theory about the killings, concepts of vengeance and honor. This was a major scoop and copies of the Star were sold out within minutes with scalpers later that day selling the paper at astronomical prices. Rocco Perri became a household name.

     In a few months, a mob-imported batch of poison brew killed forty-three people in Ontario and New York state and the public clamored for the arrests of the high-profiled Perri and his fellow bootleggers. Among those arrested were Perri, Ben Kerr, an Perri, known as "the king of the smugglers,” and three Toronto Jewish bootleggers (Max and Harry Wortzman and Harry Goldstein) but there was not enough evidence to convict these gangsters.2 Finally in 1926, there was enough public pressure to force the Federal government to appoint a major Royal Commission on the bootleg trade. The hearings were another huge media event in 1927 with Harry Hatch of Gooderham and Worts, Rocco and Bessie Perri, and many bootleggers publicly taking the stand in 1927 even as Callaghan was writing Strange Fugitive. Rocco Perri received a six month sentence for perjury, his only jail time in his long criminal career.

     The story of Strange Fugitive, rooted in these actual events, is told through the eyes of Harry Trotter, an Ontario white Anglo-Saxon Protestant of self-described "pioneer stock" who establishes himself as a major bootlegger in the "foreign" dominated multicultural underworld of 1920's Toronto. It seems certain that the name "Trotter" is an Anglicization of Trotta, three of the family who were Perri's Niagara Falls lieutenants.

     There is little heroic about Harry Trotter. He is superficial, insufferably self-centered, domineering, sexist, promiscuous, bigoted, and psychopathic. Yet what makes the novel of this unimaginative thug fascinating is its vivid depiction of the par of an underworld jungle he chooses to enter and of the boring, smug, middle- class Toronto everyday world from which he rebels. He is an early literary example of the modern alienated outsider much later made popular in the existential novels of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre and discussed in the classic Colin Wilson study "The Outsider," where criminals are depicted as "outsider" anti-heroes. In his Introduction to the last edition of Strange Fugitive in 1970, Robert Weaver remarked, "There is a prophetic strain in Strange Fugitive. Harry Trotter reminds me in many ways of the anti-hero of [Camus’ 1942 novel] The Stranger...” At one point Trotter, as if he were a Merseault, tells his wife Vera that "he wants to be alone and not have to think about anyone. I want to drift wherever I feel like. I don't want to be tied to the thoughts of any one." " And Trotter throughout the novel, untied to his thoughts, loses his sense of identity many times. In the last part of the novel he sees his identity only through the items around him in his office at the book store. “ ...Slowly becoming aware of every object in the room. He noticed the desk, its size, glass pen-container, four pens on it, big blotting paper, mahogany chairs, carpet, the pattern. He was alone in the room and each one of these objects had assumed an identity of being for him. He became so conscious of them he felt that he couldn't really be alone while they were in the room..." He often does not know who he is or why he is. He is not comfortable in the gangster world, or the mainstream world or indeed in his own skin. He is a misfit, a mistake, and we are spectators in his journey through the underworld where he loses his identity for real in a shootout in downtown Toronto.

     The original title Morley had for the novel was “Big Boy” but Maxwell Perkins, Callaghan's New York editor, didn’t like it, so Callaghan came up with “Strange Fugitive.” This is not an obvious title as Trotter is not a fugitive in any actual sense. Rather he is a fugitive in a metaphorical and spiritual sense. He is a man on the run from himself. The classy art noveau cover of the original Scribners’ edition (reproduced here) plays up the “strange” and dark quality of Trotter whose image appears in a stark profile in black. The only text other than the title is, “The Rise and Fall of one of Gangdom’s ‘Big Shots’. ” Uniquely for its time Strange Fugitive is a literary novel about a gangster told--for the first time--from the point of view of the criminal himself.

     Strange Fugitive is, in fact, the first of the modern gangster novels preceding by a year W J Burnett's Little Caesar about the career of the Chicago gangster “Rico” who in many ways is an American version of Trotter and whose rise and fall is as inevitable and whose murder is as predictable and justifiable as Trotter's. It would be interesting to find out if Burnett had read and was influenced by Callaghan's earlier gangster novel. There is a direct line from Strange Fugitive and Little Caesar and the 1930’s short stories of Damon Runyon to novels like the Godfather and Prizzi's Honor. Hollywood producers considered Strange Fugitive as a film in 1930. Warner Brothers thought of having actor James Cagney play Trotter but opted for the Chicago setting of Little Caesar, using Edward G Robinson as the star of the first of many gangster films. [If only Strange Fugitive had been made into a movie Canadian criminals would have been become known for their very pivotal role in the American bootlegging scene.]3

     On one level Strange Fugitive is a simple morality tale of a gangster and murderer receiving his appropriate punishment ("a just reward for my misdeeds my death doth plain declare," says the hero in Cambyses, an early renaissance morality play). It is a novel of Harry Trotter's descent from respectable Toronto lumberyard foreman (Morley worked two weeks one summer in a lumberyard and witnessed a nasty fight similar to the one described in the novel) into the underworld (literal and figurative) of 20's Toronto--a world of speakeasies, promiscuous sex, violence--a place inhabited by whores, killers, 'kikes," "wops," "chinks," "niggers," and “foreigners.” William Carlos Williams eloquently stated that Callaghan “seems to prove by laying his tale among bootleggers and whores that the tragic principle holds as good with ignoble metal as with noble, as good here as with the mythological King of Attica...”

The novel is divided into four parts:

     Part 1: This is Trotter's life in the "straight" world of provincial Toronto. Trotter loses his job after a fight with an Italian employee. Trotter's soulful wife Vera is a major character in this part. Vera is a figure that is at the heart of the novel. While she is essentially out of the novel by a third of the way through, she is always in Trotter's mind and thoughts. She represents literally "truth" and she is Trotter’s light, his rock, and what little there is of his spiritual life . William Carlos Williams told Callaghan that he felt that she was crucial to the novel and that Trotter even became an “appealing figure” because of his “bewildered circling around the flame of his love of Vera.” At one point early in the novel, Vera tells Harry that she is thinking of becoming a Roman Catholic. But Trotter is not interested in religion at all. God is not on his radar screen and he tells Vera that "that is a queer notion." . When directly asked if he believes in God and original sin, he tells his lover Julie casually, "It doesn't appeal to me." Trotter is too self-absorbed, amoral and nihilistic to bother with even the simplest of theological concepts.

     Part II: Here Trotter dabbles in the Toronto underworld--drinking, whoring and visiting the dance halls and speakeasies in a multicultural world of "oily Jews, " “big wops" and even an elegant, rouged, “lipsyled” homosexual. (Trotter is only told that the man is “on the outside of things,” but Trotter’s gut reaction is,” He gets on my nerves...how I hate that guy.”) It ends with Trotter and Nash stealing a truck-load of a bootlegger’s shipment and selling it to an Italian-owned speakeasy.

     Part III: In this longest section of the novel, Trotter establishes himself as part of the underworld. He rises from small time bootlegger to big-time gangster and wealthy booze exporter. It ends with his murder of his rival Al("Cosie") Cosantino (a lesser version of the real Rocco Perri) and his shameless appearance at the funeral as a mourner. He also shacks up with Anna, a promiscuous femme fatale.

     Part IV: This is the decline and fall of Trotter complete with a mob banquet and a major mob sit-down (probably the first mob summit in fiction) where Trotter only further alienates his mob colleagues by his virulent anti-semitism and lying about his role in "Cosie's" murder. This section and the novel end with Trotter's inevitable murder on the streets of downtown Toronto. The last sentence is a lyrical firsthand account of his death from gunshots from his rivals' hit car: "He saw the wheels of the car go round and round, and the car got bigger. The wheels went round slowly and he was dead."

     There are equivalents in the real world of most of the characters and names in Strange Fugitive. The big Irish bootlegger O'Reilly is a composite of the real life Hamilton bootlegger, Ben Kerr, and Rocco Perri--and like Perri, O'Reilly makes most of his money in the export trade to the US and gives a rather fulsome and unnecessary interview to a Toronto newspaper on the bootleg war. The name of Rocco Perri's well-known lawyer before the 1926-27 Royal Commission was Michael Reilly, and the chief accountant for the commission who, along with Reilly, was quoted in the paper daily, was A. E. Nash, (the name used for Trotter's young partner in crime is Jimmy Nash.) The real Jewish gangsters who controlled a lot of the booze in Toronto were the Wortzman brothers and Harry Goldstein, who were all called before the Royal Commission in 1927. Trotter himself has a bit of the background of Ben Kerr, the "king of the smugglers" and a pinch of the flare of the Perri hit-man and bootlegger, John Trotta, his real-life namesake. (The name of the main Toronto Jewish gangster in the novel, Asche, is similar to that of Morley's close friend Nathan Asch, son of the great Yiddish writer Sholom Asch.)

     Strange Fugitive is remarkably innovative in its style, its dialogue, its "lean crisp prose"--to quote one reviewer, and its unique realism. Callaghan pushed the boundaries of taste by the use of local slang, colourful colloquialisms, and racist terms. (Princeton educated and refined gentleman that he was, Scott Fitzgerald would never have a character in The Great Gatsby referred to as an "oily Jew" or "kike" as Trotter or his narrator do). Callaghan himself wrote in The London Times Literary Supplement in 1964, "I had become aware that the language in which I wanted to write, a North American language which I lived by, had rhythms and nuances and twists and turns quite alien to English speech. I had decided that language of feeling and perception and even direct observation had to be the language of the people I wrote about.” In Strange Fugitive, the main character is a bigoted Toronto gangster and so the dialogue and language is appropriate and realistic. And the use of racist epithets like “kike” had a charge in them since they were never used in the literary fiction of the time. (This is much like the innovative freshness that came in the 1950’s with Henry Miller’s use of “fuck” and other colorful sexual language).

     In a review of STRANGE FUGITIVE in the New York Times in 1928 the critic said "so fresh and vivid is Mr Callaghan's style, so sharp and convincing his characterization, so sparkling his dialogue,that one has a momentary urge to place the laurel crown on the brow without much ado...No one interested in what is really alive and vital in the writing of the younger generation of novelists can be ignorant of Mr Callaghan's work....His style is a joy in an age which suffers from too much hack writing. ..." Also trumpeting Morley was Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis who opined in 1929 on the front page of the NY Tribune that "No one today-if one claims Toronto as part of the American scene--is more brilliantly finding the remarkable in the ordinary than Morley Callaghan. Here is magnificently the seeing eye. ...His persons and places are of the most commonplace, his technique is so simple that it is apparently not a technique at all..."

     Callaghan in Strange Fugitive is showing the Toronto bootleg world as he sees it and as a result Trotter is not a sophisticated or educated man. His literary antecedent might be Melville’s 1856 Bartleby, a character who is inarticulate and whose inability to communicate rationally has similarly fatal consequence. Trotter is just such a primitive, instinctive man. It is a characteristic that Joseph Conrad --as if he were describing Trotter--- noted in a 1916 letter about the Irish nationalist, Sir Roger Casement, when he described him as “a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean he was all emotion...and sheer emotionalism has undone him , a creature of sheer temperament...” The implications of, and justification for this inarticulateness in Trotter and his immaturity was commented on by Maxwell Perkins in a letter to Morley in 1931: "In almost all of your writing your characters were the common run of people who have not had the chance to develop much intellectually or emotionally. That has led many readers...to regard you as a hard-boiled writer. Some saw a delicacy of perception was one of your marked and most distinguishing qualities, and that it was expressed with corresponding subtlety in your writing. They should have seen that even in your first novel about a bootlegger. But you were writing about a bootlegger and you naturally dealt in what I call realism. Many unpleasant details had a significance in that narrative and you put them in , and quite rightly."

     Morley Callaghan's stark description of Trotter's killing of his rival in Part III of the novel reveals a lot about Callaghan's technique:

     “One of the men coming out the side door was Cosantino, short and dark. The two men with him were taller and wore caps. Cosantino's overcoat was open, a white scarf flapping loosely over the blue coat. They were on the sidewalk. They were crossing the road. The car passed, moving very slowly. Harry fired three times at Cosantino. Eddie [Trotter's hired gun] fired twice... Cosantino and one of his men fell on the road... At the first corner Eddie spun the wheel,the car swung around, coming back along the street. the woman who had come out of the store screamed and ran, the car passed within a few feet of Cosantino who was sprawled in the middle of the road, his face down, one knee hunched up. The white scarf had gotten tangled around his neck. His hat had fallen off. The car passed over the hat and close to Cosantino and Harry fired two more shots into the body, and the car leapt forward swinging around the corner.... People running along the road were yelling. A cop on a bicycle came along and he blew his whistle. They turned north. "We got the wop," Harry said, "we got the wop." The blood seemed to be surging into his head. He heard the whistle again and laughed out loud...."

     The American poet William Carlos Williams, who read the book in proofs, told Callaghan in a long letter in early 1928 that he stayed up all night reading the novel and found that the book "frightened” him:

     “There is a truth or a principle which governs the book...it is the tragic principle of classical drama...the book is a play of studied moves. It does not grow. It is made by terrifying rules from which the characters do not escape, but they do live. Thus the truth of the writing is outside the story. There is much of the starkness of the tragic drama in Callaghan’s book.. It may be Greek; it may be Racine; it may be Ibsen...My own interest is in asking what is this thing? It is the Vera of the story. Harry wavers around it like a moth. Its failure in Harry is his death, his inherent inability to realize it and to hold it under any circumstances is his tragedy.”

     Writing about crime in such realistic fashion as Morley does can provide remarkable insight into society. For example, in the bootlegging world of the 20’s, it is clear that there are a lot of respectable people who were otherwise known as legitimate distillers and yet were hypocritically involved in the criminal export of booze. Also there was rampant police corruption as a major part of the bootleg trade (as there is today in the drug trade), and at one point in the novel Trotter complains about how much of his profits he has to pay to corrupt cops to keep his illicit operation unmolested.3 He also notes how easy it was (and still is) to recruit cops for protection: "These policemen [ the first four he put on the payroll] had been useful in getting others who were easier because not many wanted to miss anything. "4

     Crime writing however has seldom been considered worthy literature--even today--by most critics, academics and intellectuals. Thus many belittle Morley for writing about crime as he saw it. For example, the New York Times critic in 1928 said that “when Trotter participates in a cold blooded murder with sawed-off shotguns he goes about it as calmly and unemotionally as though he were kicking a dog which barred his path. In this last fact lies the weakness of the novel. It is interesting to read of a murderer only when the murder has a decided effect upon his character....Our interest in Trotter the murderer is sustained by the expertness with which the story is told, not the story itself..." More recently, the critic George Woodcock, in the Oxford Companion to Canadian literature wrote that the novel is "gauche and tentative in manner and implausible and melodramatic in plot.” And Edmund Wilson lamented the lack of a moral life in Harry Trotter. But I would say that very few successful gangsters--from the fictional Little Caesar and Tony Soprano to the many real gangsters I have known well over the years--have any moral life to speak of. Trotter is no different--he is an armed robber and killer--a psychopath with no conscience--and Callaghan would have been remiss in his portrayal of Trotter --a nasty brutish thug--to give him any moral life of substance. What inner life there is in Trotter is only hinted at (the book is only from Trotter's point of view) in his reflections over his treatment of Vera, his long-suffering wife, and his brooding over his mother and the loss of his Eden --his childhood home in the horse-and-buggy town of Maydale (Maydale may very well be Markham--with its long history of gang violence), an hour north of Toronto where Trotter visits after he kills Cosantino (as a feeble act of atonement he puts up am enormous garish stone for his parents). There is a hint of guilt over his treatment of Vera--a glimmer of a moral awareness which WIlliam Carlos Williams thought gave a “tragic” sense to the novel and Harry’s fate. But in such a criminal a developed moral life or conscience would be highly unusual, to say nothing of it being counterproductive.

     Strange Fugitive is unique in Morley Callaghan's opus--a gritty, innovative story dealing with something Callaghan knew about --the underside of a big city, Toronto. In this his first novel, he became an important modern writer who broke significant new literary ground establishing the gangster novel in North America and the urban novel in Canadian literature.

     James Dubro has been a well -known crime-writer, documentarian and author for the past three decades. He has published five best-selling books, including “Mob Rule,” “King of the Mob: Rocco Perri and the Women who Ran His Rackets,” and “Dragons of Crime,” and he helped to produce many major television documentaries, including the award-winning CBC television "Connections" series on organized crime. He co-authored the definition of organized crime for the “Canadian Encyclopedia." He is the past President of the Crime Writers of Canada, recipient of the CWC's Arthur Ellis Award in 2002,and a contributor to magazines as diverse as Canadian Business, Icon, Hamilton Magazine, Xtra, Toronto Life, and Eighteenth Century Life. He has a BA from Boston University, an MA from Columbia University, and has taught biography and eighteenth century literature at Victoria College at the University of Toronto.


Past Issues


AmericanMafia.com
div. of PLR International
P.O. Box 23
Cleveland, OH 44072-0023
216 374-0000


Copyright © 1998 - 2004 PLR International