The Whisky King

The Remarkable True Story of Canada’s Most Infamous Bootlegger and the Undercover Mountie on His Trail

Reviewed by Tanja Hütter

Posted November 17, 2017

The Whisky King is a page-turning tale of two Italians who pursued their Canadian dreams in opposite ways — one took every opportunity to uphold the law, while the other found ingenious ways to circumvent it and even to flaunt his activities before the public.

Award-winning author Trevor Cole lays out the fascinating story of Rocco Perri, a petty criminal turned bootlegger who eventually rose to become a major crime syndicate leader, based out of Hamilton. Perri was an outlandish character in both his personal and professional lives, and he never shied away from the limelight.

A highlight of the book is an excerpt from a trial transcript, which the author playfully suggests could have been the inspiration for the “Who’s on first?” comedy skit. During the trial, Perri claimed that his memory was significantly failing and that he could not remember who was making phone calls from his home. He said he and his consort, Bessie, would often let friends use their telephone — including a friend from Chicago who would supposedly drive up to Hamilton just to make a phone call!

While Perri is the book’s main character, Cole expertly weaves in the narrative of Frank (Zanetti) Zaneth. Zaneth wasn’t the only officer of the law looking to put Perri away; but he was the RCMP’s first undercover operative, and he spent a number of years hot on Perri’s trail. Zaneth was so committed to his calling that he often paid his expenses out-of-pocket; his requests for per diems were consistently ignored, mishandled, or lost.

Set in a raucous era of rum-runners, molls, and corrupt officials, The Whisky King is a most enjoyable read.

Buy this book at Chapters-Indigo

This article originally appeared in the December 2017-January 2018 issue of Canada’s History.

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