Paul William Roberts's and Norman Snider's real and electric adventure, Smokescreen, an underappreciated 2001 release, is refreshingly free of the stereotypes associated with the true crime genre. It's a genre that usually fosters a right-wing agenda while ignoring important connections to big corporations. Smokescreen shows the hoodlums as rather clueless fronts for white-collar criminals -- specificially, people in the alcohol and tobacco industries -- who get off scot-free.
The hero is Crown agent Cal Broeker, a former upstate New York businessman turned crime fighter, who uncovered the connections between big business interests and, for example, biker gangs, the Russian Mafiya and Mohawk smuggling operations.
Broeker's travels take him from the illegal speakeasy havens of the Warrior Society to the corrupt power centres of crime-ridden Bulgaria. Readers will find plenty of drama here, especially in the story of Broeker's escape from a makeshift smugglers' prison on a St. Lawrence River island.
Smokescreen's political analysis is more important than its thrills and chills. Roberts and Snider unmask the kingpins of organized crime, rogue corporate executives involved in trafficking cigarettes, alcohol and guns. Such crime czars are notoriously difficult to catch, but Broeker did succeed in contributing to the convictions of some medium-sized barons, most notably the St. Lawrence River smuggler Larry Miller.
Smokescreen is full of astonishing tidbits based on transcripts of taped gangster conversations. We get details, for instance, of Larry Miller's schemes to smuggle banned chemicals from Russia to manufacture bombs. After one passage describing a dramatic gangster strategy session, we're ominously told, "It is not known whether U.S. authorities followed up on the potential connections among Fanzetti, the Genovese crime family and some senior tobacco executives."
You can quibble with Snider's and Roberts's preference for drama over analysis, but this is nonetheless a striking achievement. Write Books at firstname.lastname@example.org
Smokescreen: One Man Against the Underworld by Paul William Roberts and Norman Snider (Stoddart), 362 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN