The Bolshevik's Revenge
by Allan Levine
Published by Great Plains Fiction
244 pages, 2002
The Gangs of, uh, Winnipeg?
Reviewed by Kevin Burton Smith
At 11:00 in the morning on Thursday, May 15, 1919, bustling Winnipeg, then Canada's third-largest city, closed like a fist.
You couldn't buy milk or mail a letter, go to work, make a phone call or take a streetcar. Armed gangs prowled the streets. If you were unfortunate enough to be foreign-born, you might be arrested. Civil rights? Hah! The Winnipeg General Strike had begun.
Caught up in the spirit of the burgeoning international labor movement and the recent Russian Revolution, battered by the economic aftershock of the War to End All Wars, frustrated by rising unemployment and crushed by often brutal working conditions, more than 30,000 Winnipeg workers, both unionized and non-unionized, walked off the job, convinced this was the only way they would ever get their fair share. Production in the factories and railyards came to a grinding halt, most restaurants, stores and small businesses closed, and there was no mail or ice delivery, no garbage collection, no streetcars, taxis, newspapers, telegrams, telephones or even gasoline. Of 96 unions in Winnipeg, 94 voted to strike, including the police. Sympathy strikes soon erupted across the country.
Winnipeg's powers-that-be -- wealthy employers, factory owners, business leaders, lawyers, bankers and local government officials -- quickly established the so-called Citizens' Committee of 1,000. Ignoring the strikers' demands for improved wages and union recognition, the committee instead turned its energies to discrediting them, calling them Bolsheviks and "alien scum" (although, in fact, almost every single union was led by an Anglo-Canadian or naturalized Englishman), and painting the strike as a "revolutionary conspiracy" to topple the government. Immigrants were rounded up, and civil rights were trampled, all in the holy name of national security (sound familiar?). Hundreds of police officers from outside Winnipeg, as well as members of the Canadian army and the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, were imported as strikebreakers. They were soon patrolling the streets, on foot, on horseback and in trucks mounted with machine guns. There was even a fully operational assault tank standing by, ready to do battle.
It was a recipe for disaster. Events finally came to a violent head six weeks later, erupting into what became known as the Bloody Saturday Riots.
This is the explosive and colorful background upon which Allan Levine pegs his smart, ambitious new novel, The Bolshevik's Revenge. His detective hero, a former brothel bouncer named Sam Klein, finds himself front and center in the Winnipeg strike. It's a backdrop rife with possibilities, and full of passion, blood and righteous anger on all sides.
Klein, who was the protagonist in two previous, politically tinged historical mysteries (The Blood Libel and Sins of the Suffragette), is meant to be seen as a moderate, skeptical, apolitical Everyman with a fierce, unflinching eye who sees (and distrusts) all from the safety of his comfortable seat on the fence. But there is no real shelter from the storm anywhere.
Although his wild days as a minder for one of Winnipeg's notorious brothels are long past, and he now leads a relatively quiet, if not quite respected, life as a private detective and family man (he and his attractive but very pregnant wife, Sarah, a former prostitute, have two children), Klein soon realizes that he can't sit on the fence forever. Events conspire to drop him directly into the building maelstrom, and eventually -- with much regret -- Sam finds he must once more strap on his holster and prepare for battle.
To his credit, Levine allows Sam to look harshly and with a fair amount of cynicism at all sides of the strike question. There are heroes and villains, traitors and fanatics, prejudice and hubris, and ignorance and naïveté on both sides of the divide:
Like other Winnipeggers, he and Sarah had stocked up on milk and bread, but their few bottles of milk could not last much past the next day or two, especially if there were no ice delivery. Did the strike leaders bother to think what would happen? If there was no milk delivery, how were the workers' own children supposed to manage? They had shut down the city and did not really comprehend the consequences of their actions. So narrowly focussed were they on winning the battle with their employers that they did not stop to think about how they themselves would be affected by the shutdown.
Unfortunately, the string of coincidences that enable Sam to be almost magically present at every pivotal event related to the strike is stretched so far, it threatens to snap.
It's not enough that the detective gleefully works for both sides -- first as a strikebreaker, and later for his old friend, Alfred Powers, a well-respected attorney, who's hired to defend Metro Lizowski, the young Socialist Party leader charged with murdering a factory owner in the strike's early days. Or that Powers' son, Graham, is the head of the anti-strike Committee of 1,000. No, we also find Sam's own sister, Rivka, romantically involved with the very much married Lizowski. And when that young radical is on the lam, where else does he hide but in the whorehouse where Sam used to work, thereby giving Sam a reason to touch base with Madam Melinda, his former employer?
Coincidences like these tend to make Sam seem omnipresent. But by attempting to blend every interesting element of the era and this strike into his fiction, Levine sometimes leaves us short. A case in a point: His effort to weave the then-popular eugenics movement into the fabric of his story is an adroit, perhaps even daring move, and in fact it adds serious oomph to the novel's disturbing prologue and chilling, bitter twist of an ending. But as a sub-theme, it never gathers enough steam to make it on its own.
This is the real problem with The Bolshevik's Revenge, as it is with any book set in the past and built around historical events: the conflict between history and storytelling. I think it's great that authors work so hard to disprove the erroneous assumption that history, even Canadian history, is boring. And author Levine, a teacher at St. John's Ravencourt School in Winnipeg, has certainly done his part. Unfortunately, at least in A Bolshevik's Revenge, he writes too much like the educator that he is, and not enough like the crime novelist he wants to be. In his all-encompassing and occasionally heavy-handed (and oh-so-Canadian) attempt to play fair, to show all sides from every angle and viewpoint, and illuminate every shadowy nook and cranny in his plot's complex web of motives and motivations, he never quite lets us get involved in the story.
And things aren't improved by Levine's omniscient and too often surprisingly detached third-person point of view. Jumping from scene to scene, ranging all over the city, Levine puts Sam through his paces, using an occasionally didactic tone, like a bored teacher reciting from his notes. If Sam is to be our witness to these history-changing events, let him roll up his sleeves and get his hands a little more dirty. Let him step down from his vantage point and pick sides, and speak from the heart and gut.
While I'm not suggesting that Levine should have turned this into a prairie version of Martin Scorsese's bloody, over-the-top Gangs of New York, a little more passion in these pages could have gone a long way.
Because this isn't a dull tale. Far from it. Regardless of the novel's shortcomings, Sam Klein is an appealing character, and the world he moves in is a thrilling and welcome change from the norm. Predating (at least fictionally) the appearance of John Carroll Daly's Race Williams and Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op (and yet conjuring up Hammett's own conflicted past with the Pinkerton Detective Agency, employees of which were often hired as strikebreakers), Levine gives us a captivating and colorful portrayal of an early private detective, years before Hammett, Raymond Chandler and a thousand books, films and TV shows nailed the image to the wall.
The idea of using a Jewish-Canadian (the perpetual outsider) to illuminate some of the lesser-known aspects of history is a noble one. It adds an extra dimension to things, another layer of alienation for Sam:
Tolerance and equality were only words social gospellers ... spoke about. Such acceptance, Klein and every other Jew in Winnipeg knew, was often cheap talk. Neighbourhoods, clubs and summer resorts were all restricted. And yet, in the chaos and turmoil of the strike, something had changed.
The common-as-dirt racism of that era (the local police chief openly refers to Sam as the "Hebrew troublemaker") contrasts with sweet domestic scenes that feature Sam, Sarah and their children -- scenes reminiscent of those found in Faye Kellerman's Peter Dekker/Rina Lazurus books, which also blend family and religious aspects into their stories.
There's an interesting subplot here, too, which finds married man Sam being attracted to the feisty and competent Hannah Nash, the latest addition to Winnipeg's police force. Hannah, a young widow, is attractive and smart and lonely, and Sam, with a wife at home who's preoccupied with motherhood, is feeling a little lonely himself. But as elsewhere in this book, we are mostly told about passion here, rather than shown it.
Alas, this novel's characters never quite come across as being swept up in the tide of history. Too often, Sam seems to be merely playing catch-up to events. But if The Bolshevik's Revenge is not quite the complete meal Levine hoped to prepare, it's still one hell of an appetizer. And, trust me, sometimes you can make a pretty good meal out of appetizers. Maybe in his next novel, the professor will take off the kid gloves and really let 'er rip, spice things up a little with the obvious passion he feels for his subject matter.
The story of the Winnipeg General Strike is one that deserves to be remembered. As Jacob Penner, a participant in events of that time reminisced in 1950: "[The strike] lives in the memory of those that are still with us and who took such an honourable part in the struggle for the rights of the producers of wealth. It lives in the memory of the sons and daughters of those that participated and to whom this story is being related by their parents during quiet family hours."
History needs to be kept alive, not just in Canada, but around the world. And judged on that level, Levine's book is a triumph, fascinating and arguably timely. No sooner had I finished it, than I headed to my local library to learn more about the 1919 strike. I also dusted off my mental to-be-read pile, where I moved Sam Klein's two previous adventures closer to the top. | January 2003
Kevin Burton Smith is a January Magazine contributor and the editor/creator of The Thrilling Detective Web Site. A Montrealer by birth and inclination, he's been spotted recently lurking around the Los Angeles area, defying Chandler's red wind and trying to get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.