Legends of Winter Hill: Cops, Con Men, and Joe McCain, the Last Real Detective
By Jay Atkinson
Crown, 352 pp., $24
I don't know about you, but for me, the term ''hero" is tossed around way too easily today. If you're like me, and you like your heroes real, then let me suggest you pick up a copy of Jay Atkinson's ''Legends of Winter Hill," where you'll meet the larger-than-life Joe McCain Sr., one of the most storied and decorated officers in Boston police history.
Novelist Atkinson, a self-proclaimed private-detective buff since the days of ''The Rockford Files," receives a job offer he can't refuse: Come to work for McCain Investigations, headquartered in Boston's North End, for a year to learn the ins and outs of the trade, what it takes to be a gumshoe.
That arrangement in itself might have created enough fodder for an absorbing tale. But if you're interested in everything from killers to con men, there's a heck of a lot more in store for you in this book.
Over 6 feet tall and close to 300 pounds, Joe McCain Sr., the founder of McCain Investigations, had been a Metropolitan District Commission cop for decades before a drug bust gone bad caught him a bellyful of lead and almost a trip to the morgue. Animal tough, McCain fights back from the brink of death but decides, at age 58, that he's had enough of ''the Job" and that the time has come to follow a dream, to open his own private investigation firm.
Atkinson never gets the chance to meet McCain, who has passed away by the time the author works for the firm, but from the first chapter on the reader learns why ''Joe McCain is as close to the Greek ideal of the hero as an Irish kid from Somerville is ever going to get."
Atkinson's skillful storytelling skips back and forth between episodes of working the streets of Quincy, Fall River, and Roxbury, where he and other, more seasoned McCain operatives repossess cars for banks, or stealthily track and videotape delinquents who are beating their employers out of workmen's comp benefits.
Though these activities may sound mundane, Atkinson keeps the story moving quickly enough with his slick narrative style and enormously colorful and detailed descriptions of people and scene. About a guy who is giving a bank's collection officer a hard time, Atkinson writes: ''Glancing at the weather-beaten clapboards and the dead, snow-strangled geraniums in the window boxes, I'm expecting a large, raving, whiskey-soaked lunatic with forearms the size of championship salmon."
As Atkinson tails these deadbeats and hangs out in cop bars, he meets a passel of state troopers, Secret Service agents, FBI agents, and Boston police, all eager to relate the personal adventures they shared with McCain. Atkinson writes, ''It seems that whenever I'm not working with Kevin McKenna or Mark Donahue [McCain Investigations operatives] I'm chasing the ghosts of McCain and the men who knew him." And it's those stories he hears that make this tome truly a page-turner.
McCain and his partner Leo Papile tangle with some of the toughest wise guys in Boston crime history, men with names to match their feral personalities like Joe ''The Animal" Barboza and Jimmy ''The Bear" Flemmi.
Stories of cops who chase gangsters have been written before, but it seems few have approached that dangerous line of work with a zeal that matches McCain's. From his early days patrolling Revere Beach, staking out places like the Ebb Tide and Sammy's Patio, infamous Mafia hangouts, McCain segues to tracking the hard men of Somerville's Winter Hill gang, in particular its head, James ''Whitey" Bulger, who the author inaccurately states is ''from Winter Hill in Somerville" when he's actually from South Boston.
Besides gangsters, McCain and his cohorts pursue crooked postal workers, who steal hundreds of millions in bearer bonds; drug traffickers with connections from Latin America to Canada; and consummate burglars like Ernest K. Field, whom Atkinson describes as ''a one-man wrecking crew."
How Field was tracked, kept under surveillance, and eventually arrested is just one of the dozens of incredible tales that Atkinson has seamlessly woven into his work and that keep you, at times, literally on the edge of your seat.
In what may be an even darker side to this story, Atkinson also investigates McCain's enemies within the police. In his search for truth McCain spent a lifetime ruffling feathers, and sometimes the truth ran contrary to the ''blue wall" consensus.
Following his retirement, McCain testified before a Governor's Council commutation hearing board on behalf of Joe Salvucci, a convicted murderer, because he knew the man was innocent. Sure, McCain took heat for it, but it was this dogged pursuit of the truth, in every aspect of his career, no matter the consequences, that made him a hero.
The cops-against-cops stuff is eye-opening and very disturbing. And Atkinson explores how the enemies McCain made, and the problems they create, are inherited by his ex-Marine biker son, Joe Jr., a hard-nosed Somerville police sergeant who tries, in every way, to follow in his father's footsteps.
Personally, I've been on both sides of the law, and I thought I'd seen and heard it all. ''Legends of Winter Hill," which had me cringing one minute and laughing the next, broadened my street education. Read it yourself. I guarantee it will do the same for you.
Richard Marinick is the author of ''Boyos: A Novel."