Last month saw the arrest of Alderman Ed Burke—who has served on Chicago’s City Council since I was a child—for extorting donations to his campaign. This is only the latest is a long history of corruption in Illinois, particularly in its major metropolis. Such shenanigans also create the backdrop for my four novels, which play on the Second City’s reputation for dirty politics.
As a primer, I’ll list some of the lowlights from the state’s history. This summation is far from comprehensive (with 50 aldermen in the city alone, many up to something, how could it be?) but it will give readers the Cliff Notes version.
First among them has to be Mayor Richard J. Daley, also known to locals as Da Mayor, Hizzonor, and simply Boss. For clarity’s sake, I have to acknowledge two things: Daley was never charged with any crime, and I’m referring here to the first Mayor Daley, not his son who succeeded him in office.
Daley is credited with perfecting a political machine that kept him in power for five terms. In truth, the Cook County Democratic party had controlled things since Anton Cermak took office in 1931, what is locally known as dynasticism. The Boys from Bridgeport (an Irish working-class neighborhood that nonetheless churned out five mayors in sixty years) controlled elections through many means. Among their favorite tricks were:
- Four-legged voting (a friend from the party who accompanies you into the voting booth to ensure you pulled the right levers)
- Hobo floto voto (those same partisans leading vagrants by one shaky hand to the polling stations)
- Vote early, vote often (those not content to cast just one ballot)
- Don’t let death disenfranchise you (those who are resurrected on election day)
The Machine was so called for its small army of patronage workers, precinct captains, and ward committeemen who dispensed favors to friends and meted out retribution to the disloyal. Every civil servant was expected to vote the ticket and to get their friends to do the same.
Some say that the Machine continues churning out victories to this day while others will tell you that the power of the Cook County Dems started to wane with Daley’s passing in 1977, resulting in the city’s first female and African-American mayors.
However, a grand jury report in 1982 found widespread instances of fraud, including vote buying, impersonation, and manipulation of ballots cast by the elderly and disabled.
Chicago is hardly alone in its corruption. Illinois’ state capitol has also produced more than its fair share of crooks, including four governors who’ve gone to prison in my lifetime. The distinction belongs to:
- Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell Barak Obama’s U.S. Senate seat after he was elected president.
- George Ryan, who sold commercial driver’s licenses to unqualified truckers, including one who killed six children.
- Dan Walker, who generously offered himself money from a savings and loan that he owned.
- Otto Kerner, who was convicted of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and income-tax crimes (obviously, he was a busy man).
A few more of the major and petty offenders:
- Dan Rostenkowski, who served 22 years in the U.S. House, including many as chair of the Ways and Means Committee, which governs taxation, pleaded guilty to mail fraud.
- Jess Jackson Jr. (son of the prominent preacher and one-time presidential candidate), who used campaign funds to buy $750,000 in goods for himself and his wife, including a Michael Jackson fedora and cashmere capes.
- Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the U.S.House, for sexually abusing four boys who he coached in wrestling.
What breeds such contempt for democracy? In my stories, it’s less about greed or power than blind spots. We come to accept our own world view as correct because we cannot see any other. As a wise man once told me, everyone believes their own b.s.
To see more images of the guilty, go to my Pinterest pagefor infamous Illinois politicians.
Over the weekend, my wife and I watched The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett’s comic final novel. What struck me most was not just how funny it was or how clever, but how modern it felt for having been made in 1934. In the midst of the Great Depression and Prohibition, it showed a tipsy, wealthy, crime-solving couple with nary a care in the world. Welcome relief from today’s woes as well.
Today I had to write a blues song. The irony of this statement, coming from a suburban Californian, is intentional. Not only do I not listen to the blues, despite growing up in Chicago, I never entered a blues club (as the drinking age elevated to 21 during my youth). Nonetheless, for a story about an inebriate during Prohibition, I had to create the lyrics for a tune about Jamaican ginger, aka, the Jake.
Initially, I planned to use the lyrics from an actual blues song by some southerner from the era, but to my surprise, my editor at AHMM informed me that the song I liked remained under copyright. After an hour trying to track down the current owner of those rights, I gave up and decided to write my own.
Fortunately, I found plenty of examples. The beauty of the internet is that everything is available, including many things that should not be there because they are copyrighted. Regardless, there they were.
To simplify the task, I used my training as an English major to analyze the structure: rhyming couplets tending toward iambic pentameter. In fact, those songs I found most reminded me of poems by Langston Hughes.
Still, it felt odd to be counting the syllables of a song written by someone who sang from the heart, and probably never thought of his words in such a way. Ultimately, I found that if I used some of the words from the originals and filled in my own syntax, I could craft a passable imitation.
In case you’re curious, here it is:
Felt so thirsty, I couldn’t see
Needed some tipple to steady me
Bought a potion at the local drug
Instead it give me the limber leg
Boys, you better beware
Fore you end up in despair
That white ginger booze
Will give you the jake walk blues
Yesterday I turned in the draft of my fourth novel in the Duncan Cochrane series. Now it’s all in the hands of my editor, leaving me idle time as I await his comments. What’s next? Focus on short stories. Try to gel the story collection I’ve been working on for four years into a novel. Start another project. These interludes always feels like limbo, both uncomfortable and full of possibilities.
I recently committed to judging a mystery book competition (thanks Eileen), and am now trying to figure out how I can review 100 books, even given the 1-year time frame. Better practice my speed reading…
Apparently, William Faulkner, winner of the Pulitzer and the Nobel, was a fan of mystery fiction, even composing a novel and a few shorties of his own in the genre, one of which was nominated for an award by Ellery Queen Magazine. If you read some of his most famous books, particularly A Rose for Emily and Absalom, Absalom!, you see the influence. Good counterpoint to all those snobs who think literary fiction exists on another plane from genre writing.
Are you mourning the demise of House of Cards? Good political dramas are less common than bad reality TV. Here’s my 5 favorite:
- The Wire
- Boardwalk Empire
- The Quiet American (movie and book)
- The Third Man (move and book)
Since 1989, 227 US prisoners have been exonerated due to false confessions. Of them, 84 lived in Illinois. Good fodder for my next book…
Recently, Chicago has served as the backdrop for many movies and TV programs, but my memories stem from my childhood there, so my favorites all date from the 1980s. Those of you who recall that era will also recall a few of the most popular: The Untouchables, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, everything else by John Hughes.
However, my favorites are none of those. Two linger in my memory even now: The Blues Brothers and Risky Business.
The first one is notable as much for who’s in it as what’s in it: Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin and of course Aykroyd and Belushi. It was also the first Hollywood movie filmed in the city for many years, so when it released, every Chicagoan went to see their hometown portrayed. If you haven’t seen it recently, rent it for the music alone.
Still, the movie that most accurately captures my experience of the city is Risky Business. At the time of its release, many critics characterized it as a teen sex comedy. And the plot certainly supports that conclusion (high school kid turns his house into a brothel when he parents go away for the weekend). Today, female viewers would dismiss it as male fantasy (happy hookers) mixed with misogyny (happy hookers). All of which is true and fair criticism.
For me, though, it captured growing up on the North Shore during a time when I was oblivious to the existence of others less fortunate than myself.
To whit, the hero, Joel, is desperate to reach an Ivy League college to please his parents and fulfill his cultural destiny. He joins his high school’s young entrepreneurs club to pad his resume and has nightmares about blowing the SATs.
He’s also a bit callow, scared to make a move on the girl he likes, caught boasting about his non-existent sexual conquests, being chided by his parents for playing the stereo too loud. Meanwhile, his greatest acts of rebellion are playing air guitar in the living room and driving his dad’s Porsche.
Then he meets Lana, the worldly-wise call girl who teaches him what cutthroat capitalism really means.
Throughout his encounters with pimps and prostitutes, car crashes and grand theft, Joel is insulated from any real suffering by the wealth and privilege of his upbringing. Although he’s oblivious to it, he exploits it. Tom Cruise gets the balance of fear and arrogance just right, exhibiting an insecurity we’ve rarely seen from him since.
While my family didn’t have a sports car or a big house, I had plenty of inhibition and self-doubt. Yet I also lived in an insulated bubble that protected me from crime and addiction and failure. (At least, so I thought. More on that in a latter missive.) Joel was the one character I didn’t have to analyze in English class to understand.