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POWDER WARS - GRAHAM JOHNSON

PUBLISHER – MAINSTREAM PUBLISHING

The title and laminated cover are simple and effective.   Two words for the title and a shiny gun firing cocaine powder into nowhere.   This is a book about drugs and violence and the approach will be direct.   As the book makes clear, a gangster needs to keep his operation secret from the police and be prepared to deal quickly with the competition.  To make a fortune selling drugs does not require mathematical knowledge of variables and probability, an in depth understanding of derivatives and hedge funds.   More important are nerve and vicious willpower.

The short title has no ambitions regarding ambiguity but, perhaps unwittingly, it evokes Powder River and the Johnson County War in Wyoming.   This event inspired the movies ‘Shane’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and most of us know how the Wyoming Stock Growers Association hired gunmen to slaughter the settler homesteaders who wanted to resist the expansionary plans of the ranch owners.    Liverpool is not Wyoming, we have more policemen and fewer farms and until recently there was no tradition of gun ownership.  The belief in violence as a justifiable means of controlling competition and asserting the primary economic qualifications of market leaders is as strong, though, as it was a hundred years ago.    This is not a tale of men who are troubled by their consciences.

In British publishing there is a genre called gangster true crime.   These books are usually repellent.  Ex-criminals, loaded with braggadacio but possessing little insight, glamourise the more violent moments in their life.   Such books, which often have a cover of a man with a plain face bathed in a cynical smile, are quite popular with the kind of troubled young man you would prefer to avoid.   Mainstream Publishing can not be blamed if they hope ‘Powder Wars’ attracts these readers.  The rest of us should not worry about the company we may be keeping when we read this honest and decent attempt by Graham Johnson to tell an important tale about the criminal underworld.   Johnson is an ex-crime reporter for the Daily Mirror newspaper.  The Mirror may not be what it was but in the world of British tabloid journalism it is as good as it gets.   Johnson knows his subject and more important the subject knows the underworld of Liverpool.   The book has authenticity and there is no attempt at glamorisation.

‘Powder Wars’ is no masterpiece.   This is not the literary equivalent of the movie ‘The Godfather Part 2’ or even the original novel by Mario Puzo.   The book consists of two parts, a first hand account by ex-criminal Peter Grimes and brief narrative summaries that Johnson provides at the beginning of each chapter and at the end of the book.    Johnson writes plainly but clearly.  Peter Grimes recalls his violent and thieving past in Scouse argot and this loses something when it is transferred to inflexible print.   But it is a small price to pay as the language used by Grimes is so revealing.  Not surprisingly, he is extremely foul mouthed but within his pauses we do hear something of his values.  It is clear that he lives and operates in a world where nobody has any compunction about responding violently and viciously to those who mistakenly think they can give offence.  Oddly, this repulsive callousness is accompanied by a strange sense of honour.  Grimes repeatedly uses the phrases, ‘Be Fair’ and ‘To Be Honest’.   There is good behaviour and that consists of loyalty and avoiding deceit with partners.  We have a sense of a man who is preoccupied with holding himself to account.   Yet when violence is considered appropriate there is no compassion or even a sense of proportion.    Lives and bodies are wrecked for the smallest transgression.  

What is also clear is that these criminals are not lazy.  It is no coincidence that they refer to their crimes as graft.  They will work hard to earn money.  Before the sale of drugs became their main business the gangsters performed robberies that required real effort, laundered their money through nightclubs that needed investment and attention and ran legitimate businesses that involved heavy manual labour such as scrap and demolition.   Indeed, their expertise in demolition they acquired earlier in the more demanding robberies.   These men did not enter a life of crime to avoid work.  They like crime because it has a big pay off, Grimes uses the phrase ‘get paid’ to signify a successful venture.  It also gives them status.    This status is complicated and is different from what we see in Hollywood films.  One scene in the book begins with Grimes playing darts in the local pub.   I read the opening twice trying to imagine Al Pacino in a Liverpool boozer throwing his arrows and supping a pint.  Grimes talks about the availability of women and his huge earnings but it is obvious his life has had mundane moments.   He actually establishes his empire in a pub on the Dock Road which I can confirm has neither appeal nor luxury.  

The book benefits from Grimes being more sympathetic than his fellow gangsters.  His eldest son dies of a drug overdose and Grimes who has never sold drugs decides to become a super grass.  This son was at one stage heading for a respectable career as a naval officer.  His other son is more impressed with the friends of his father than his actual father and he becomes a gangster all too willing to make a fortune from cocaine and heroin.  The family drama at the heart of this story is Shakespearian but the book misses much of this dramatic potential.   There are limits to the true crime genre or especially those told in unvarnished Scouse dialect.  

We cannot have everything.   Instead, the book contains a really good account of the career of Curtis Warren, a not very bright hard man who became the richest criminal in British history.  Even this is surpassed when the book comes to life in dramatic fashion in the last third.  Johnson has not just had the good fortune to have a first hand telling of the activities of the Liverpool criminal underworld but he uncovers a major scandal that involves the premature release from prison of John Hasse, the main rival to Grimes.  John Hasse is not pleasant, especially if what Grimes alleges about Hasse building an acid bath in his basement is true.   But the scandal of his release is addictive because, of course, we leave the book knowing that it may go deeper than Johnson can reveal.  I read the second edition and that had been enlarged to include developments that had occurred between editions.   When that happens and when we suspect the same thing could happen with the next edition and the scandal involves a Tory Cabinet Minister called Michael Howard who stood for election as Prime Minister and whose cousin in Liverpool was suspected of being a criminal we know we have a real story.

Although ‘Powder Wars’ is a class above the normal tell all gangster reminiscence there is always a risk that a book that is mainly a first hand account will be self-serving.   That, though, is half the fun, wondering if what actually happened was really different.