By Eve Lazarus. Anvil, 150 pp, softcover
In a city whose material features are constantly changing, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that, despite the fads and fashions of successive generations, Vancouver’s rich and colourful criminal life is as rich and colourful as ever, albeit somewhat differently so. How fitting, then, that the most interesting part of Eve Lazarus’s fascinating and eccentrically organized book Sensational Vancouver has to do with the interplay of cops, crooks, and civic politicians.
She begins with a policeman named Joe Ricci, who joined the force in 1912 (and after retiring in 1935 ran a beer parlour). He was hailed as the roughneck scourge of prostitutes, drug addicts, and other so-called miscreants. At one point he was asked to translate an anonymous letter, written in Italian, that threatened to blow the whistle on police ties to prostitution. A formal investigation revealed that Joe Celona, the well-established tobacconist, gambler, and bootlegger, not only operated a chain of brothels—as everybody in the know already knew—but ran ones in which white women serviced Asian men. Vancouver at the time had a well-deserved reputation for the worst sort of racism, not only against Asians in general and Chinese in particular but also against indigenous people and persons of African descent. Celona’s career was especially messy because he was a friend of the mayor and had the police chief in his pocket.
Amazingly and to her credit, Lazarus at this late date has been able to uncover fresh primary documents concerning Ricci. She’s found numerous police and crime-scene photos as well. Her book also includes a great many new and archival pictures of the houses in which many of the cops, robbers, and victims she writes about once lived.
For (this is the odd thing about the book) the author is most deeply concerned with two aspects of Vancouver’s past. The first is the lives of early female police officers, a neglected area to be sure. The other is old Vancouver houses, both grand and humble. She goes into great detail about the work of local architects and then about the architects themselves. Which leads her to the present era, where, becoming a bit too wrapped up in her subject, she points out where Michael Bublé and Michael J. Fox grew up and where Jimi Hendrix slept when he came to town to crash at his grandmother’s place.
In short, Lazarus is an enthusiastic researcher, a quirky writer of prose, and an energetic amateur historian in somewhat the same manner as the late Chuck Davis. Her book jumps around like an antipodean marsupial but it’s great fun—particularly when it deals with dope peddlers, hardworking bootleggers, disgraced mayors, and corrupt chief constables.