Nuts about grass

Many British Columbians are rather disappointed to learn that Quebec has overtaken their province as

As I trundle across America on a book tour during the Democratic primary race, I can't help recalling Jay McInerney's infelicitous response to 9/11 - about it being a bad week to have a book come out - even if this is in bad taste. In every city I go to, there's only one story. Except, that is . . . in Chicago. As I arrive in the Windy City, it is being solemnly reported that 32 people were shot over the weekend. Six lay murdered. Some victims were bystanders caught in the crossfire of gang warfare, others were deliberately executed as part of turf wars, and a large minority were teenagers. Predictably, all the victims were either black or Hispanic. Children in one part of the West Side are now being bussed to school under armed guard. If you thought HBO's crime drama The Wire was an exaggeration, take a trip to Chicago.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported the story of the weekend mayhem with a dramatic headline: "Stop the killing". "There are just too many weapons here," observed Superintendent Jody Weis, despairingly. "Why in the world do we allow citizens to own assault rifles?" Excellent question, Super. Buggered if I know the answer.

Merry underground dance

To the Lotus Cardroom and Cafe in Portland, Oregon. At the back of the bar, the Cardroom, for years home to illegal gambling sessions, is both the most appropriate and the most unlikely venue for my talk about McMafia, the phenomenon of global organised crime.

A former brothel, the Lotus is also a portal into the extraordinary network of tunnels built beneath the city at the end of the 19th century to facilitate the smuggling of illegal migrant labourers into town. In the event of police raids across Portland, working women and their clients would charge down into the tunnels and lead the cops a merry underground dance.

Almost as impressive in scope is Powell's, the largest independent bookstore in the United States, and one of the very few that can rival the floor space of chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders. The difference is that the staff at Powell's actually know a great deal about their product.

I end up chatting to Milan, an American from a Croat diasporan family, about the vagaries of Serb and Croatian politics.

Venerable Vancouver

The venerable audience at the Canadian Club of Vancouver appears delighted and amused when I outline the importance of marijuana to British Columbia's economy. It's now worth around 5 per cent of the province's GDP, and certain communities in central and eastern BC would collapse if the industry came to a halt.

The arcane and pointless debate about reclassification is, mercifully, thousands of miles away. Here, the idea of launching any effective law-enforcement campaign to stop people smoking marijuana is regarded as nuts by even the most fervent anti-drug campaigners. Many British Columbians are rather disappointed to learn that Quebec has overtaken BC as the number one producer and exporter of cannabis.

Cultural conversion

I visit Montreal for the first time and am quickly convinced that this is Canada's most fascinating city. Each district tells a different story of its layered history: the Francophones outwitting the colonial power and its money kings; the central European immigrants dodging Québécois anti-Semitism; and now an Arab taxi driver tells me, with the undisguised bitterness of the recent immigrant, that "there is nothing beautiful about this city. I know - I drive around it 12 to 14 hours a day!"

This is patently untrue - there is a lot that's beautiful about Montreal. I am fortunate in my guide, Noah Richler, scion of the city's legendary literary son Mordecai. I am a late convert to Mordecai's work, one of the many lacunae in my reading, but, boy, am I glad I got to it before it's too late. His last novel, Barney's Version, is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud in public. Think vintage Woody Allen fused with the eclectic intelligence of Alan Bennett, but placed within Montreal's remarkable cultural hybrid - a glorious antidote to the now-poisonous intensity of the Barack and Hillary show.

Misha Glenny's "McMafia" is published by the Bodley Head (£20)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel