It was a time of unregulated madness. And nowhere was it madder than in Chicago at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. As Model Ts rumbled down Michigan Avenue, gang war shootings announced Al Capone’s rise to underworld domination. Bedecked partygoers thronged to the Drake Hotel’s opulent banquet rooms, corrupt politicians held court in thriving speakeasies, and the frenzy of stock market gambling was rampant.
Enter a slick, smooth-talking, charismatic lawyer named Leo Koretz, who enticed hundreds of people (who should have known better) to invest as much as $30 million–upwards of $400 million today–in phantom timberland and nonexistent oil wells in Panama. It was an ingenious deceit, one that out-ponzied Charles Ponzi himself, who only a few years earlier had been arrested for a pyramid scheme. Leo had a good run–his was perhaps the longest fraud in history–and when his enterprise finally collapsed in 1923, he vanished. The Cook County state’s attorney, a man whose lust for power equaled Leo’s own lust for money, began an international manhunt that lasted almost a year. When finally apprehended, Leo was living a life of luxury in Nova Scotia under the assumed identity of a book dealer and literary critic. A salacious court hearing followed, and his mysterious death in a Chicago prison rivaled the rest of his almost-too-bizarre-to-believe life. (goodreads.com)
I found EMPIRE OF DECEPTION so incredibly fascinating I really couldn’t put it down (I did have to because of work, stupid work). Jobb wrote it in such a captivating way that it sucked me right in and held me with this almost ridiculous story of a non-Ponzi Ponzi who made Ponzi look like a Girl Scout.
Creating his scheme years before Ponzi ever did, and continuing years after he was caught, Leo Koretz effectively wrote the book on corruption and deception. Not only did he scheme people through not one but at least three different investment dupes he ducked out of dodge and went into hiding for a year under an assumed identity and continued to live lavishly on the money he’d stolen. Never mind he was already living a double life before he was caught. With an infinite number of dirt bag levels to his character these are the things reality TV should be made of. All the ridiculousness of this man’s life didn’t need embellishment. It was insane enough as it was.
Jobb did excellent work in researching the details of Koretz’s life (and the lives of those around him and directly and indirectly affected by him) and brought them to life on the page. I might as well have been reading a newspaper and the events could have been current, it was so lifelike. The thing about Koretz, and I think Jobb captured this perfectly, was that outwardly he wasn’t a sleaze. He was a relatable, genial man who endeared people to him with a great personality. And he used that. He used reverse psychology in order to get people to trust him more. People didn’t believe him to be a shady character and he never presented himself as such. I found myself almost buying into him as an upstanding person because he didn’t outwardly do bad things. He wasn’t a gangster, he didn’t appear to be a philanderer, he appeared to have a completely legitimate business. On top of that he was nothing who crawled his own way to something by the road of hard work and determination, and again, was legal about it. He just didn’t have much by the way of scruples.
This book was so lively and focused not only on Koretz as a person but on the time he lived in. The 20s were alive in EMPIRE OF DECEPTION and in a decade where excess was everything Koretz was at the top of it. This wasn’t just a rehash of past events told for the sake of education. This was a story, a tale to tell, and Jobb told it with stunning accuracy and a flare for the fantastic that didn’t hamper the story but supplemented the fantastic elements perfectly.
If you want to read about a piece of history that’s been largely forgotten, left in the shadow of another shyster who left a much smaller mark in the greater world of scandal, you’ll love EMPIRE OF DECEPTION. It’s a learning session and a drama all wrapped into one. From nailing the setting of the time perfectly to staying out of the story as the author and letting the facts speak for themselves to a voice that will just drag you in and won’t let go, you won’t want to put it down. I’m generally interested in this time period anyway but even I surprised myself with how much I liked this book. It was just phenomenal all around.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.