Nailing a sense of place

ANTHOLOGY | Mystery writers capture Chicago with evocative prose

October 14, 2007

No one does blues like Chicago and no one writes Chicago like Sara Paretsky, Marcus Sakey, Sean Chercover and the 18 other authors featured in Chicago Blues.

This short story anthology, edited by author Libby Fischer Hellmann, captures everything about this city, from the cool air off the lakefront to the smoke at a South Side blues joint, the roar of the crowd inside Wrigley Field or the clacking of the L overhead. The writing is gripping and descriptive, capturing the characters and settings within the confines of very few pages; a difficult task for even the most seasoned of writers.

"When I picked up a story, I would know, usually within the first paragraph, whether or not it was going to make it in," says Hellmann, who solicited stories from Chicago mystery writers. Out of 40 submissions, 21 made the cut. Although there is a large range of stories and different writing styles, all the pieces included in Chicago Blues have a strong sense of place, layered characters and evocative prose. This may be Hellmann's first experience as editor, but her passion for the work indicates that it won't be her last. "The process itself was so much fun because each time I received a story it was like getting a present, and I couldn't wait to read it."

Indulging in affairs

With a desire to give every writer an equal opportunity, Hellmann selected manuscripts based on the writing alone without much regard to previous publishing history, allowing lesser known authors to have a shot and giving veteran authors the freedom to break away from their usual approach. There are appearances by old favorites -- V.I. Warshawski, Jack Daniels and Smokey Dalton -- but many of the authors took a break from their series characters and experimented with new voices and themes.

"A novel is like a marriage; a short story is like an affair," says Hellmann, who veered away from her own Ellie Foreman series and wrote "Your Sweet Man," a story about a son reconnecting with his father while revealing the details behind his mother's murder. Split between 1980s and 1950s Chicago, Hellmann explores a world very different than that of her novels.

On the other hand, Mary Welk, author of A Merry Little Murder, wrote about a world that is very familiar to her. As an ER nurse, Welk based her short story, "Code Blue," on actual events. One night, a man who brutally attacked an elderly woman was admitted to her ER and she had difficulties treating him. She fictionalizes the subsequent turning points, but Welk's experience gives the story authenticity.

Lower Wacker's starring role

When you think of Chicago crime, one place that immediately comes to mind is Lower Wacker Drive, so it's no surprise that many of the authors chose to set their stories there.

"It's moody, it's creepy, and it's dangerous," says Steve Mandel, author of Another Lost Angel. "[Lower Wacker] is the best kept secret in Chicago."

Brian Pinkerton, author of Vengeance and Abducted, used the setting as a kind of metaphor for life itself. "There's the facade that everyone sees," he says, referring to the slick buildings and shops lining Michigan Avenue. "Then there's the hidden, underground element."

The authors who utilized this setting did an amazing job capturing the mood and feel of the street, what it sounds and smells like, and what lurks after the sun has set. And where Chicago may be known for its crime and corruption, it's also known for the blues and, as the title promises, each story touches on the theme in one way or another.

In the book's preface, Hellmann writes, "When Bleak House offered me the opportunity to edit a crime fiction anthology set in Chicago, I knew instantly it would be Chicago Blues. Brazen, urgent, unrepentant, and passionate, Chicago is the perfect backdrop to blend the noir of the blues with the noir of crime fiction."

Some stories, such as "Blue Note" by Stuart Kaminsky and "Good Evenin' Blues" by Jack Fredrickson, took the theme literally, setting their stories in blues joints and writing about musicians and club owners. Others took a more figurative approach, putting their own twist on the blues theme.

"I took blues to mean depression," states Pinkerton, whose story "Lower Wacker Blues" is darker and moodier than his novels.

Hellmann's approach was different -- part literal, part metaphor -- in her story about blues musicians. "I wanted to transpose the way I feel about blues into prose," and so she created a tone and writing style that mirrors the musical genre.

Love for real city

Of course native Chicagoans have a passion for their city, but even outsiders are drawn to the city of Big Shoulders.

"There's a lack of pretension here," says Ben Leroy of Bleak House books. The Madison, Wis., resident has been spending much time here shooting footage for the book trailer and DVD that will go along with the collector's edition of Chicago Blues. He says he's noticed the earnest blue-collar ethic that exists here, unlike the major coastal cities.

Hellmann, who is a transplant from Washington, D.C., didn't even begin writing fiction until she came to Chicago, and like most of the authors included in this anthology, she has no intention of changing her setting.

"[This city has] real people, real jobs and real corruption," she remarks. "They'll have to take me out of here feet first."