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Rocco Perri: The Story of Canada’s Most Notorious Bootlegger

by Antonio Nicaso

Lovers of the true-crime genre will appreciate this new biography of one of Canada’s most feared gangsters for two reasons. The first is that the book’s author, Antonio Nicaso, is widely regarded as Canada’s leading expert in both the past and present of this country’s organized crime racket. The second reason is that Rocco Perri’s life, from humble beginnings in Calabria, Italy, to his rise in Hamilton, Ontario, as one of North America’s leading mobsters, makes for a fantastic rags-to-ill-gotten-riches read.

Nicaso turns his insider’s eye to the variety of ways that Perri and his number-one business partner (and common-law wife) Bessie Starkman built up an empire in the illegal transport and sale of alcohol during Prohibition, diversifying to include side businesses in gambling, prostitution, and extortion. But Nicaso realizes that to paint a true picture of the life and times of Perri (who disappeared in 1953 and has never been found), he also needed to look at the life and times of the seedy folks the gangster worked with, and those who tried to stop the spread of his underworld empire. He does this with interview material from living Perri family members, previously unearthed archival sources, and accounts from the popular press of the day.

The effect is fantastic. Readers can’t help feeling that they have been transported back to a time when men like Perri presided over a powerful underground economy with its own rules and often brutal code of conduct. The book is so well crafted and researched that it should appeal to any reader who enjoys Canadian history as told from the street level.