Review by Jay Fromkin
“The Purples,” by W.K. Berger, is a novelization of the rise and fall of Detroit’s Jewish Purple Gang. From the best I can tell, the only character who shares the name of anyone involved in the doings of the real-life Purple Gang is one of the founders, Joe Bernstein. The remaining characters are based on or modeled after Jewish and Italian gangsters, cops, prosecutors; events are likewise skewed from history. And, it doesn’t matter.
Berger is a very good writer of character, dialogue, internal monologue, description, and action, and that makes “The Purples” a very good book.
Written from the perspective of Joe Bernstein as he authors the history of The Purples from his prison cell, the book describes the Prohibition era in Detroit and Hamtramack, Michigan, with enterprising rival gangs, corrupt police and politicians, self-serving radio personalities, dedicated prosecutors, extended Jewish families, crime-enabling citizens, peaceful lakes and body-strewn rivers, and the paternalistic/evil pervasive presence of Henry Ford.
The characters are as well defined as if crafted by a malevolent Damon Runyan: Joe Bernstein, who engineers the rise of the Purple Gang by force of will and targeted assassinations; Bernstein’s brother Max, a genius with a sometimes debilitating nervous condition; the Original Solly Levine, Bernstein’s google-eyed spy; one-legged war hero and stalwart crime fighter Harry Riley; Rachel Roth, Joe’s doomed girlfriend; Abie Zussman, a artist with a dagger who made going to the movies a chancy affair; Sugar House Gang leader Buster Weintraub, who transformed the Cream of Michigan diner into the Crime of Michigan; crazed killer Grabowski; and speakeasy owner, Tennessee Jenkins, a black woman who came up from the South to make her fortune.
“The Purples” is bloody, violent, thoughtful, and very well written. Here’s an example, describing Grabowski, who since childhood has had a terrible case of eczema, and one of his dogs:
“He kept on scratching and as he did, patches of dried skin came loose and fell to the floor. The beast at his heels licked up the skin flakes and swallowed them, then looked back up, waiting for the next morsel to drop.”
Oddly, given all the violence and despair within this book, Berger infuses his writing with humor, particularly through Joe Bernstein’s voice. This is, after all, his story, and he knows how to tell a thrilling, fast-paced, funny yarn. I suppose he owes Quentin Tarantino a debt of gratitude, but Berger’s earned his own accolades with “The Purples.” I highly recommend it.
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