Thursday, November 1, 2007
CHICAGO IN NOIR AND BLUE
I've written expansively about the blog called The Outfit, where Chicago-based crime writers Sean Chercover, Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Sara Paretsky and Marcus Sakey gather to swap ideas, thoughts and bitches. Now Hellman has put together an extraordinary volume called "Chicago Blues" featuring all of her Outfit colleagues and many other Chicago writers. It contains 21 stories, 17 written especially for this collection, at least half of which are topnotch: an amazing batting average in a field where .250 is normal.
Other cities have their noir collections: a house called Akashic (dedicated to "reverse-gentrification of the literary world," as their catalogue says) has published volumes including Neil Pollack's neighborhood-specific Chicago Noir. But, as Hellman's collection proves on every page, crime and blues are inextricably connected in Chicago
In his introduction, Rick Kogan says about Theresa Needham, who ran Theresa's, one of Chicago's most famous blues clubs: "She would die in 1992, by which time the blues was big business in Chicago, and some people had a hard time remembering that the music was not born in a Grant Park Festival. Its roots are ever in the smoky, ramshackle South and West Side Bars and, further back, in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta."
The best thing about "Chicago Blues" is the way it catches both the spirit of the blues and the excitement of a well-crafted mystery story. Editor Hellman, who writes the Ellie Foreman mystery series, tells in "Your Sweet Man" (from a Muddy Waters song) a gripping chronicle of a boy's tangled relationships with his blues singer mother, Inez, his dying father, and the slick operator who steals Inez away.
In "The Non Compos Mentis Blues," Sean Chercover – whose debut novel Big City, Bad Blood earned some glowing reviews and who owns, according to his bio, "more blues albums than can reasonably be justified" – drops his private eye Ray Dudgeon into a case where avoidable murder is played out over just a hint of sad music.
Michael Allen Dymoch puts her Chicago Police Detective John Thinnes into a shapely, scary story called "A Shade of Blue," about a man who collapses as he's recalling the 1960's murder of a blues singer "so good it gave me goose bumps."
Kevin Guilfoile, whose first thriller was Cast of Shadows offers a spooky story called "O Death Where is Thy Sting?" in which an avid blues record collector comes across the only existing copy of a vinyl made by an unknown three-fingered guitar player on the day Robert Johnson (of "Sweet Home Chicago" fame) died, and which is rumored to feature ghostly shrieking. Guilfoile's story is full of fascinating expert details of the record collecting and selling business ("Any record somebody else wants you to have isn't worth having…")
In her first short story to feature her tough and compassionate series hero, private detective Smokey Dalton, Kris Nelscott shifts Smokey to one side and lets the young boy Jim, whose life Dalton saved in Memphis (after Jim witnessed the assassination of a Black leader and the arrest of the wrong man in her first novel about him), serve as narrator. It's a fine addition to Nelscott's ongoing portrait of Smokey as a living library of recent Chicago history
Jack Fredrickson, whose first mystery was the well-received A Safe Place For Dying, explains in "Good Evenin', Blues" why the narrator calls his blues club The Crossroads: "Chi-Town's a blues town; lots of folks know the old Delta legend about Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi, to bargain away his soul in exchange for becoming the greatest bluesman that ever lived." The only problem is that the club is incredibly noisy from the trains which run above it. Then a man named Pearly Hester ("He was dressed like an old-time bluesman in baggy pin-striped suit, white shirt loose in the collar, and a floral necktie. He set a gray felt fedora on the bar") offers a solution that literally turns out to be a deal with the Devil.
But the best quote (a lovely inside joke) in the book is from Sara Paretsky's "Publicity Stunts" – which has no blues at all in it. V.I. Warshawski asks a successful novelist who wants to hire her as a bodyguard what the woman does for a living. "I write crime novels. Don't you read?" she says sarcastically. To which Vic replies, "Not crime fiction. I get enough of the real stuff walking out my door in the morning."
"Chicago Blues" is a splendid bedside book, to be enjoyed for a long time. Slip some Muddy Waters or Robert Johnson into your CD player and delight in the best of both worlds.