Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #43: Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective by Jay Atkinson

This book was supposed to part of my July 5K, but I didn't get around to blogging about it on time, unfortunately.

The Winter Hill of the title actually encompasses the area where I now live, so the field trip portion of my 5K ambitions was pretty easy for this one. The church Joe McCain got married and got eulogized in is at the end of my block, maybe 60 yards from my apartment. The funeral home where his wake was held is across the rotary from where I wait for the bus every morning. The tiny Irish bar the author hangs out in with Joe Jr. is a place my friends used to hang out before it closed. The whole book is full of landmarks I recognize from my daily life. It's like being inside the story, although things are obviously significantly different than they were 40-odd years ago when Officer Joe McCain was walking the beat.

The loose framework of the book involves author Jay Atkinson spending a year working at a Boston detective agency founded by detective Joe McCain and run by his son. During the course of his work he learns about the criminal element of old Boston (the Winter Hill neighborhood in particular) and about Joe McCain's success as a police officer and detective keeping his streets safe. There are many colorful anecdotes about Officer McCain's experiences dealing with Irish mob kingpins and low-level con men alike, as well as fighting corruption within the police department.

On the whole, it's a good book, although it's extremely episodic and frankly a bit jumbled for my taste--there is no organization to the tales as far as I could tell, which often left me confused about when events had occurred. The character of Big Joe was well drawn, Atkinson letting the people who knew the man best tell us about him in their own words. I think the book could have been tighter and include more real information--it seems as though a lot of times the author relies on secondhand stories without doing any real primary source research. However, on the whole I would recommend it to people who enjoy police stories or are interested in the Winter Hill neighborhood.

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