This is a reprint of an essay that appears in the current Mystery Readers’ Journal, Fall edition, which is all about Chicago. The magazine also includes essays by nearly two dozen other Chicago authors, including Marcus Sakey, Michael Sherer, Jack Fredrickson, Sheldon Siegel, and others. For more, check it out here.
Um… actually that’s a lie.
The truth is I moved to Chicago for a job. However, the weather is never far from Chicagoans’ minds. In a word, it’s frightful, especially from November through March, when the sun rarely shines and snow piles up higher than parked cars (or used to before climate change). It’s also pretty lousy in July when summer punishes the prairie with hot, arid days and nights. Nelson Algren said it best:
“Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.”
Chicago: City on the Make.
It’s an apt metaphor. Chicago is an inherent paradox: all bluster, business, even bombast on the surface; underneath, though, it’s a place where darkness creeps in around the edges. June may be busting out all over Chicago during the day, but you don’t want to be in the wrong place on a cool June night. Even during Chicago’s fleeting midsummer, there’s an uneasy recognition that as the days get shorter and the nights blacker, the dark can swallow you whole.
I’m not sure I understood the depths of that darkness when I moved here thirty-five years ago. At the time I thought Chicago was the best-kept secret in the country: a city with a stunning lakefront nestled in the shadows of skyscrapers… a terrain so flat you could ride a bike for miles… a place where the Blues poured out of bars as freely as the beer. I loved the city’s beauty, its bluntness, its energy, even its hokey parochialism, seen on TV news via Bill Kurtis’s raised eyebrow, Fahey Flynn’s equanimity, or Walter Jacobsen’s perpetual fury. The city boasted two baseball teams, a decent football team, and Michael Jordan. Second City began here. Work was king, and people got up early. They stood in line, and when you went into Marshall Field’s, someone actually asked, “May I help you?”
It’s one of the few big cities through which it’s easy to drive, and the view of the skyline driving into town from the north or south is still magnificent. For me Chicago was a place of possibilities. Despite the Old Boy’s network, I had the sense that if someone had a good idea and was willing to work for it, they could make it here. And on clear, crisp days with the city spread out before me, it seemed like a sure bet.
It wasn’t until I ventured out of my geographical comfort zone that I began to hear and see the stories Chicagoans don’t like to talk about: the despair and isolation in Uptown where diversity may be king, but most of the people are paupers… the ruthless segregation on the South Side that breaks Chicago into two separate cities… the homeless curling up in cardboard boxes on Lower Wacker Drive… the never-ending cycle of graft and political corruption that, while it has put four governors in jail, still underlies everything that gets done or doesn’t get done in Chicago.
I have felt that hopelessness first-hand, tutoring eight and nine year olds, all the while knowing that a year or two hence, the girls will be selling their bodies and the boys their souls to the gangs. Chicago can break your heart that way. People who arrive here optimistic and eager never get the break they need. Others come seeking refuge but find only terror. People with good intentions see those intentions thwarted and manipulated.
Crime-fighters are supposed to protect the vulnerable, but there’s a thin line between law enforcers and law breakers. Everyone knows someone who can fix a ticket. And most know someone who’s connected. People understand that you can indict a ham sandwich in Chicago if necessary. Everything is political, even the pizza.
Is it unique to Chicago, this struggle between the light and the dark? Of course not. Most urban areas face the same issues. But Chicago is bigger and louder and more brazen than other cities, so its struggle seems more intense, more consequential.
In fact, the noir soul—or should I say soulessness—of Chicago has settled in my soul, and I feel compelled to peel back its layers like the onion for which the city was originally named. Why? Because the struggles that define Chicago make for extraordinary conflict. And conflict is the essential ingredient of good fiction.
So my muses lurk below the surface in the back alleys, blue-collar haunts, and dive bars of Chicago. I gravitate toward settings and time periods where dreams fail, lovers cheat, and money is short. I am drawn to the fear, the despair, the shards and detritus of those who tried and failed, and those who never had a chance. And when I hear about the heartbreak and desolation, or, occasionally, the dazzling redemption, I try to work them into my writing.
Since 2002 I have published ten novels and at least a dozen short stories that are set in Chicago. My first four crime novels, the Ellie Foreman series, are set on the affluent North Shore of Chicago, where darkness hides underneath the soccer fields and manicured lawns. But each of Ellie’s stories also takes place in a Chicago neighborhood you don’t want to end up in after dark. My subsequent three thrillers, featuring PI Georgia Davis, begin in Chicago but one ends up in Wisconsin and Arizona. My three stand-alone thrillers are largely set in Iran and Cuba, as well as Chicago in 1968, but even the foreign-set novels use Chicago as a home base.
It’s strange. I moved here from Washington, DC where I worked in broadcast news. Over the years I would meet transplants from Chicago who invariably told me how much I’d love it here. That I was the kind of person who would appreciate and thrive in the city. At the time I thought they were just full of hometown braggadocio, and I didn’t take them seriously. But it turned out they were right. I know without a doubt that had I not moved here, I would never have become a writer. Chicago has sucked me into its maw. It’s my kind of noir.