#812 Vancouver junkie hunter, 1983
Horseplay: My Time Undercover on the Granville Strip
by Norm Boucher
Edmonton: NeWest Press, 2020
$21.95 / 9781988732985
Note: this book will not be available until November 15, 2020. Order it in advance at your local bookstore.
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
We’re on the toughest section of Granville Street in downtown Vancouver. The hookers and dopers mingle with the gays and straights, all of them looking to score something. We could be in a scene from DaVinci’s Inquest, the top-quality TV show that ran from 1998 to 2006. Except that it’s 1983 and Norm Boucher is telling us the real-life story of his exploits as an undercover narcotics cop.
For eight months, he patiently and methodically works his way into the street world of the lowlifes that frequent the Blackstone Hotel, one of a cluster of hangouts along the Granville Strip. This one is home to the heroin crowd, the hardcore users and dealers, the ones willing to do violence for a hit of horse, smack, H.
Montreal-born Norm Boucher enters this world as an undercover RCMP narc and he sees it all up close and personal. He sees young women turned hard from living with the needle. There are the down-and-outers who will snatch a purse or a wallet, and then knife the victim for a fix. And there are the smooth operators who play the suckers and pocket the profits handed to them from their hooker girlfriends.
This is a hard life, one that Boucher learns to manipulate and negotiate to get what he wants. He’s got his target scoped out. He’s not after the lowly drug user. They are just a means to an end. He wants the bigger fish, the pusher that cruises the strip, watching and waiting for the big score.
His story reads a little like a detective novel set on the mean streets of any big North American city. Did Boucher borrow a trick or two from the hardboiled detective fiction writers to tell his story? Possibly. His writing style is similarly clipped and the scenes are filled with jailbait just out of the joint or about to get slammed back into it.
He’s no match for, say, a Raymond Chandler, a Dashiell Hammett, or even an Elmore Leonard. But he displays a skill for colourful description. He’s got the junkie lingo down pat. Through his eyes we glimpse a Vancouver most of us haven’t seen other than to drive by and gawk for a moment. Like looking at the wildlife in a human zoo.
Horseplay is a memoir. It is not a novel or a sociological study or a police dossier. As such it reads well and it leaves us shuddering at the life he exposes. One wonders if leading such an undercover life is worth the risk. As Boucher says, to be a junkie on the strip, you need to know that if someone hurts you, you need to hurt them back. Those are hard rules.
In the eight months covered in the book, we meet Jimmy, Jodie, Max and several other Strip regulars. Boucher befriends them, works his way into their confidence, and eventually sends some of them to jail. They are human beings who once had dreams and ambitions, but when Boucher reaches them, most are spent and will do anything to get their next fix.
Slowly he works his way to the bigger money as a “bundle” dealer. It’s the type of “hype” the RCMP is looking for. He even fakes needle punctures in his arm and fake fixes to convince them he is trustworthy.
Throughout the eight months, he sees into the lost lives he is secretly surveilling and he is not immune from the sadness and hopelessness he sees at the Blackstone. “Like other police officers,” he writes, “when I began this operation I looked at the Blackstone as a box of crime and violence. It was the easiest way to look at it.” As the months wore on, though, he realizes that “everyone has a story and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be detached from it.”
Reading Horseplay took me back to the mid-1960s to my youth in Vancouver. In those days, an RCMP agent named Abe Snidanko did Boucher’s job. In fact, he became famous as the narc in Cheech and Chong movies. It was like a game of hide and seek with long-haired, bell-bottomed hippies dodging Snidanko and staying just out of reach with their nickel-bag stashes of marijuana and their dangling hash pipes.
Eventually, though, the game got more serious and often it ended badly. Young people went to jail or left town on the lam or worse, some of them overdosed or died. And some of them landed on the Granville Strip where agents like Boucher awaited them.
Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian, and documentary filmmaker. His book Underground Times: Canada’s Flower-Child Revolutionaries (Deneau, 1989) discussed the Vancouver street scene circa 1967.
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