Edited by John Belshaw. Anvil, 240 pp, softcover
The number of recent books about Vancouver’s supposedly sinful but certainly corrupt past in the period either side of the Second World War continues to grow. The high level of public interest probably began in 2007 with Daniel Francis’s award-winning biography LD: Mayor Lewis Taylor and the Rise of Vancouver. Taylor is in a way the key to the whole story because he was a wide-open-town sort of mayor and served nine terms, with himself, the police, and the underworld in one another’s pockets. His nemesis was the two-term right-wing mayor Gerry McGeer, infamous for standing in Victory Square during the Depression and literally reading the Riot Act to the unemployed.
This and other similarly well-known events get reinvigorated in Vancouver Confidential, John Belshaw’s fascinating anthology of original historical essays by 15 researchers in various fields. The real value of the collection, though, is in how it reveals far less well-known aspects of an introverted city’s almost absurdly colourful past, when there were demimonde characters with names such as Tom the Greek, Shorty Miller, and Newsy Bernard.
Tom Carter, a musician and artist, writes engagingly about the key financial players in the story of Vancouver’s vaudeville, a form of theatre that seems to have survived longer here than anywhere else. Terry Watada, the playwright, opens up our eyes to “the Al Capone of the Japanese community” centred on Powell Street in what was then called Japantown. Several individual murders, grisly ones, are looked at afresh. The pieces that hold the most interest are the ones about little-remembered individuals who are hereby restored to the civic memory.
One example is the pioneering Vancouver photographer James Crookall, many of whose haunting and almost mysterious images are included in the book. Another is the bizarre creator of a once-famous libation called Kennedy’s Jazz Cocktail. This was Joseph Kennedy, who was in the business of patent medicines (like Jay Gatsby, remember?) but made his fortune in what was, essentially, bootlegging.
A launch party for Vancouver Confidential will be held in Chinatown’s Emerald Supper Club on September 21.