You think you know about waiting? How about waiting for the L train at a platform in the middle of the Dan Ryan Expressway, with the Hawk blowing in off Lake Michigan so hard you’ve got to hold on so you don’t get blown over the tracks into the middle of rush-hour traffic? And then you find out the thing you’re holding on to is some old lady’s purse—honestly, officer, you didn’t mean it!—and now you’re cooling your heels at 35th and California while your lawyer is in the bathroom, trying to reattach his toupee to his scalp with a bottle of rubber cement he swiped from the intake officer. You’re living a real-life episode of Better Call Saul and what makes it worse is that you’re stuck in a rerun.
That’s waiting. And while you’re waiting for Booklist‘s Mystery Month to finally get started, let us give you a little literary tour of the Windy City, circa 2003. Trust us, it hasn’t gotten much prettier since then.
What makes Chicago such an evocative setting for crime fiction? Barbara D’Amato, author of two Chicago-set series (see The Booklist Interview), believes the city’s history as a rail center helped generate the remarkable ethnic diversity that has defined Chicago for nearly two centuries. And that ethnic mix, in turn, produces both the conflict and the energy necessary to breed great crime novels.
History helps in other ways, too. Yes, there are several fine historical series set in the city-Max Allan Collins’ Nate Heller novels, in particular-that draw specifically on the Golden Age of Chicago crime (Capone, Nitti, Ness, et al.), but even the contemporary series profit from the echoes of all that rat-tat-tatting that went on in the past. It’s also helpful for a crime-fiction setting to draw on a history of corruption, and nobody does corruption better than Chicago. A powerful, intransigent local government can’t hurt either, and Chicago, the city that works, works its political machine best of all. But even the best machines grind their gears now and then, and in that grinding, crime novels are born.
Click here to download a PDF, including the photo essay that accompanied this feature in the May 1, 2003 issue.