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Clever con-man with NS connection

Can there be a more daunting task for a book author than to produce a gripping page turner when the reading audience already knows the story outline and the ending?

Yet, that is precisely what Dean Jobb has masterfully accomplished with his latest work—Empire of Deception—the true story of an American master swindler in the same genre as Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff.

At the request of the author, we were sent a copy of the book for review purposes—nothing unusual in that…

But, before we had a chance to open it, two acquaintances separately, and co-incidentally, enquired if we had read the book—because they thought it was great and wanted to recommend it. That is entirely unprecedented in our experience (and neither individual was aware that the author is a Nova Scotian writer, journalism professor, and sometime contributor to this magazine).

So completely engaging and authentically descriptive is the storyline (right down to details of what people were wearing) that we checked back with the author to determine how much of the narrative is fictional fill-in and how much is actual verifiable fact. The answer: 100 per cent factual. The fine detail that so eloquently sets the scenes visually in the reader’s mind originated with (what must have been) painstaking research of the newspaper accounts written in the vivid language of the fiercely competitive heyday of broadsheets in the 1920s.

Why would a local writer write this story? There is a distinct local connection to this sordid tale that took place in Nova Scotia. The author relates that he stumbled upon the story quite by happenstance while thumbing through some index cards in the Public Archives back in the 80s. He happened to spot an entry referring to a Halifax newspaper account of the arrest of a Chicago-based swindler who hid out in Nova Scotia.

“Leo Koretz” (a.k.a. Lou Keytes) had defrauded investors of more than $2.1 million—before the 1920s and years before, and during a much longer period, than Ponzi.

While he was a thief and a liar, the reader is invited to also see Koretz in an almost sympathetic context as well. The man was obviously very intelligently brash and exceedingly talented in his deceit, deftly applying reverse psychology to separate wealthy schmucks from their cash by using their own greed against them. It’s not quite Robin Hood, but the victims were often less than sympathetic characters at a pre-middle class time and place in history when the distribution of wealth within society was exceedingly inequitable.

There’s insight, as well, into the immense pressure and psychological stress induced by years of pretence and lies and deviousness to the point where Koretz almost seemed, once in a while, to be tempted to believe his own bull.

The story takes the reader to the Chicago of the start of the 20th century, a time of sensational headline writing and the blurred line in the United States between politics and the justice system that endures to this day.

But the story is all the more engaging because the reader knows the larger than life characters were real people and the descriptions of them accurate.

And then the narrative switches to the strained interaction between this enormously wealthy, gregarious and mysterious American suddenly appearing among the small town residents of southwestern Nova Scotia—and simultaneously among the social elite of Halifax. There are a few chuckles to be had as the reader recognizes the guarded social intercourse (while seeking to benefit nevertheless from the available largesse) that to some extent sustains to this day in our relationships with wealthy Americans.

It’s a compelling read and a tough book to put down as the true story of this amazing character unfolds.

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