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Historical fiction crime novel shines light on 1920s murder in Bienfait

James Arnett has released a new historical fiction crime novel named Bean Fate, about a notorious true murder of a member of the Bronfman family that was never solved.

BIENFAIT - Have you ever wondered what life in the Estevan area looked like in the 1920s, the times of prohibition and bootlegging, the times when roads weren't paved and trains and horses were still the main means of transportation, the times when people here already spoke English, but it was a somewhat different language from what we use nowadays?

James Arnett, a Harvard Law School graduate and a successful lawyer, CEO and politician, born and raised in Winnipeg and based in Toronto, has been growing this curiosity for the small-town Prohibition-era life for years. But it wasn't until he retired that he had an opportunity to submerge into this interest of his.

The twisted paths of authorship brought him to publishing a book named Bean Fate, a historical fictional account of a notorious true murder of a member of the Bronfman family that was never solved.

"[Bean Fate] is about the famous Bronfmans who were engaged in rum-running during prohibition in the United States, and the notorious murder of a member of their family in the town of Bienfait … in 1922. James Arnett has accurately captured the times and vividly described real people and their relationships," Marshall Rothstein, a former judge, Supreme Court of Canada, described the book in his review for Arnett's website.

"I say this with some authority as my father and some uncles lived in Yorkton, Saskatchewan in the 1920s and they knew Harry Bronfman. They told me some of the facts that are now authentically recounted in Bean Fate. Bean Fate reminded me of reading W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, a story of a young boy growing up in Saskatchewan in the 1930s.

“Arnett's novel paints a picture of the times of Saskatchewan and the high-risk adventures of the Bronfmans and their interaction with the Chicago mafia. It is a story well worth telling and one that is well told."

The Mercury talked to Arnett about his journey and the story he tells that takes place in the 1922 in the town of Bienfait, which people here simply call Bean Fate that was reflected in the name of the novel.

How the book was born

Arnett said he's always liked the craft of writing but has never thought about developing his hobby in a creative direction. He's written law review articles and made several publications for newspapers on issues of public policy. He tried writing once before, but that experiment didn't turn out.

"While I was still practising law, at one point, I did try to write a novel. But I didn't pursue it. It wasn't very good, and I didn't really have the time to work on it, so I dropped it. And I didn't think anything more of it. And doing this novel [Bean Fate], I sort of backed into it," shared Arnett.

"I didn't start off with the idea to write a novel about Bienfait," Arnett said. "I had always been interested in the back of my mind for the issue of Saskatchewan and rum-running in Saskatchewan because my father had been a small boy in Regina in the 1920s. And his family lived near the Bronfmans. And he told me once or twice that when he was a kid, he heard big cars roaring up and down the back lane at night, and it was kind of dramatic. So, I always had that at the back of my mind."

The inspirational image never went any further until a few years ago, when Arnett was retiring after a long and successful career, and finally had more time on his hands.

Bean Fate was sparked by a manuscript of a novel written by his grandfather Arnett when they lived in Regina in the 20s, and inherited from his grandmother a long time ago, something Arnett didn't remember until recently. He wanted to do something with the piece, so he showed it to people he knew in the publishing industry, but they weren't interested.

"But I thought it was an interesting setting. I mean, it was about rum-running in south Saskatchewan in the 1920s, and obviously been written when [grandfather Arnett] lived there. So, then I thought, well, maybe I could somehow do something with it. If it couldn't be published as a novel, maybe I could use it as a basis for developing an outline for a film," Arnett recalled.

He showed it to an acquaintance in the film industry, but the feedback wasn't very promising either. While the setting was indeed interesting, the story itself was not that compelling. Yet, Arnett's interest in the era and the whole genre was already too high to stop there. 

"I started reading up about Saskatchewan history and prohibition in Saskatchewan. And it didn't take me long to come across this murder, which is the basic incident that the novel is built around," Arnett said.

Yet, even with a sound murder, at that time the plot wasn't suitable for the film industry, and Arnett returned to his original plan of publishing a novel.

"I got more and more into it, I got more and more interested. And then I got interested in the writing of the novel itself. Initially, I was worried, I thought, I don't know how to do dialogue and all that. But I learned on the job. It was a challenge that I enjoyed, so I ended up doing it," said Arnett with a laugh.

What's in the book

It took Arnett several years of research and writing until the book saw the light. He also was able to use some of his childhood memories from the 1940s, since the world around him back then hasn't changed much since the '20s due to the Great Depression and lack of development during those years. His other grandfather had a farm in Manitoba, and memories from that place helped Arnett understand the lifestyle better.

"There was a little town near that farm that I used to go to when I was a little kid. And I could tell from reading that that town was very similar to Bienfait. There were a lot of towns like that in the Prairies at that time. And I could just visualize it," Arnett shared. "I had a sense of what a small Prairie town was like back in those days."

He eventually made a trip to southeast Saskatchewan to make sure that the world he describes in his book is indeed correlated with reality. He visited the places that appear in the book, including Regina's Legislative Building, Estevan and, of course, Bienfait and Roche Percee rocks.

Arnett used some ideas from his grandfather's manuscript, and some of the fictional secondary characters were inspired by that piece. The main character in the novel, the protagonist, who is a rookie cop, was created by Arnett himself. The murder that provides the basis for the book was real, but unlike in the novel, it's never been solved. And so, the characters like the Bronfmans and the Attorney General were historical figures.

Arnett said his research led him to some almost miraculous discoveries that helped him make those characters as real as they could be.

"One night, I came across an excerpt from the newspaper called The Winnipeg Tribune … There was an issue of the Winnipeg Tribune that had a long article with an interview that Harry Bronfman gave right after this murder. It was a long article with endless quotes from Harry Bronfman," recalled Arnett with excitement. "I used that, I took that basically and that became almost like a chapter in my book … It was amazing … I didn't even know at the time, how to make a copy of it ... I was afraid I might lose it, so I wrote the whole thing down by hand, right there on the spot."

While the fiction book is entertaining, Arnett said the hope is also that the historical aspects of it would shine some light on how life was back then.

"I happen to like historical fiction. I'm interested in history, and I've read a lot of history over the years. But what I like about historical fiction is that it brings it alive. It's one thing to describe what happened 100 years ago, or 200 years ago. But if it's done properly, if it's historical fiction, for the reader, it becomes more vivid. And I would hope that somebody that's reading my book, really gets a little bit of a sense of what it was like to be in Saskatchewan in 1922," Arnett said.

"I hope that some people besides people on the Prairies read this book and get a sense of the fact that there's quite an exciting past in the Prairies too. [For example], one of the remarkable things that I came across is that, as of 1922, when this book is based, Saskatchewan was the third most populous province in Canada."

Arnett added that they are now working on trying to turn the final version of Bean Fate into a film.

The book Bean Fate by Arnett, published by Austin Macauley publishers in January, is available at McNally Robinson, on Amazon and through several other stores for online order. For a full list of stores and more information see Arnett's website.

About the author

Arnett, born and raised in Winnipeg, graduated in arts and law from the University of Manitoba and Harvard Law School.

After practising law briefly in the Department of Justice in Ottawa, in private practice in Winnipeg, and after a brief stint in the advertising business in Toronto, he settled down to practise corporate law. He became a partner in Davies, Ward & Beck in Toronto and then a senior partner in the Toronto and Washington, D.C., offices of Stikeman, Elliott, a major Canadian law firm.

He was appointed a Queen's Counsel, served on the Council of the Section of Business Law of the International Bar Association, as a governor of the Washington Foreign Law Society, and as Ontario editor of the Canadian Bar Review.

He subsequently served as CEO of The Molson Companies Ltd. at the time, chairman of Club de Hockey Canadiens Inc., and as chair of Hydro One Inc., an Ontario utility. He has acted as an adviser to the Governments of Canada and the Province of Ontario. He was chair of Toronto East General Hospital at the time and chair of Canada's National History Society. He is a member of the Council of the International Commission of Jurists (Canada).

He and his wife, Alix, have four adult children and live in Toronto.