Karen Abbott is one of those writers I’ve always meant to get around to reading. She writes about fun pop-history stuff like the Chicago underworld at the turn of the 20th century and female spies who operated during the Civil War. It makes sense she would turn her scholarly attentions to notorious bootlegger George Remus and his wife Imogene.
I would argue that while Al Capone is likely the most famous figure to emerge from prohibition, George Remus has the more interesting story. A German immigrant who used medicinal contracts and Prohibition loopholes to control a large part of the country’s whiskey trade, Remus lived a fascinating life. His reign was short but colorful and his infamy peaked when he was acquitted of his wife’s homicide due to temporary insanity.
Armstrong does a decent enough job covering it. She knows what you’re here for: the down and dirty of the Remuses in the 20s, so she doesn’t waste much time with extensive details about their life before. She does do a thorough job of sifting through the many pieces of evidence to tell a streamlined story from the beginning of Remus’ empire to his downfall and up to the murder and trial. It’s an easily readable biography.
It won’t win any points for style. Armstrong strips the story bare of narrative in favor of the unfiltered facts, which she arranges in a way that trusts the story itself will hold the reader’s attention. It worked for me, at least. I came in wanting to know about Remus and I left with what I wanted and I didn’t need to have my brain fried the way I normally do when I read Caro or Chernow. Armstrong may not win awards but she knows her readers and there’s something to be said for that.