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Why Chicago Is Crime Fiction’s Hometown

Why Chicago Is Crime Fiction’s Hometown

This St. Patrick’s Day, as thousands of Chicagoans pour into the streets to dye the river green, others will paint the town blood-red.

Murder and Mayhem in Chicago, a crime fiction conference in its second year, will draw more than two hundred readers, authors, and aspiring writers to hear from three dozen authors and experts in publishing, forensic science and art, policing, and crime reporting. The one-day event (Saturday, March 17) will conclude with a conversation between bestselling thriller writers Gillian Flynn and Jeffery Deaver.

Last year, I co-founded Murder and Mayhem in Chicago with Dana Kaye. This year, I asked some of our forthcoming panelists why Chicago is the perfect location for a crime fiction conference.


Lori Rader-Day

Is Chicago the true hometown of crime fiction?

Jeffery Deaver, author of The Burial Hour

Chicago and environs, of course, have a wonderful literary tradition, in which crime is often a central element. Theodore Dreiser, a Chicago newspaperman for a time, set Sister Carrie and much of his Trilogy of Desire series in the city; while not crime novels per se, they have characters who end up on the wrong side of the law and suffer the consequences. (His An American Tragedy—though not set in the city—was, I’d say, the first great American legal thriller.) Some of the novels of Saul Bellow, Nobel laureate and professor at the University of Chicago, focused on marginalized and criminal characters, as in The Adventures of Augie March (my favorite coming-of-age novel of all time) and Humboldt’s Gift. Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm was one of the first commercial novels to look at drug addiction. I was a kid when I read it—and completely freaked out.

As for traditional crime writing, there’s no end of great writers who are from or who have set books in Chicago: I think of Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City; Scott Turow, Presumed Innocent and other novels; Sara Paretsky, the V.I. Warshawski private eye thrillers; Lori Rader-Day [interviewer’s note: no cash changed hands here]; Michael Harvey, and David Mamet, whose period crime novel, Chicago, has just been released.

Then too we can’t forget the city’s history with organized crime: Eliot Ness, Al Capone and his crew and their rivals. I frequently ate dinner on Clark Street, across the street from the site of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. And I lived for a time in Oak Park, not far from where mob boss Sam Giancana was killed.

Jamie Freveletti, author of Blood Run

Chicago is a great crime fiction town. We have the venues that crime writers love: blues joints playing fantastic music, dark alleys, a long history of questionable Governors, and strong, down-to-earth citizens who get on with their lives with grit and determination.

Susanna Calkins, author of A Death Along the River Fleet

As a transplant to the Chicago area, I’ve come to appreciate the city—not just for its layered history, but for its interplay of grit and sparkle. Every local has a story, every building’s got its ghosts—a perfect locale for crime writers.

Danny Gardner, author of A Negro and an Ofay

Dig deeply into history and you’ll find, be it colorful slang, the principles of organized crime and law enforcement, or street-level thugging and hustling, Chicago gave modern crime fiction its culture and language, thus when the best of in our genre comes to MMC, it’s a pilgrimage, except instead of palm leaves, we should lay counterfeit cash and spent cartridges on the road into Downtown. And it’s too cold to ride on the back of an ass. Better to take the L.

Lori Rader-Day

I’m really looking forward to the conversation between the police officers, forensic scientists, Chicago crime reporter Marcella Raymond, and Luis Santoyo, a forensic artist. Who are you excited to see speak at Murder and Mayhem in Chicago?

Jessica Strawser, author of Almost Missed You

The program bills me as speaking at this event wearing two hats—as a suspense novelist myself, and as a longtime editor [of Writer’s Digest]. But I’ll really be wearing three, because I’m also a huge fan of so many of the other featured authors. I pinched myself when I saw the lineup! What an amazing opportunity for writers and readers alike to spend a day wrapped in the genre.

Raymond Benson, author of The Secrets on Chicory Lane

I have met Jeffery Deaver on many occasions and in fact we’re good friends—he and I are the only two Americans ever to be commissioned to write official James Bond novels.  So it’s always a pleasure when there’s an opportunity to hang out with him and hear his valuable insights on the craft of writing.

Susanna Calkins

I’m so excited about the overall line-up, but I’m totally geeking out about the keynote conversation between Gillian Flynn and Jeffery Deaver—that is going to be fascinating!

Lori Rader-Day

Who should attend Murder and Mayhem in Chicago?

Alexia Gordon, author of Death in D Minor

Chicago readers should be excited about MMC because it’s a chance to meet authors living and working right here in Chicagoland! Who knows, maybe you’ll meet an author who lives down the street or the hall from you and they’ll use you as a character in their next novel.

Patricia Ruocco, librarian at Lisle Public Library

Members of Lisle Library District’s mystery discussion group, Murder Among Friends, and I are thrilled to have the chance to hear and talk with the authors of books we’ve read—and find more to add to our future reading list.

Marcella Raymond, WGN crime reporter

As an aspiring author, I can’t wait to attend Murder and Mayhem in Chicago and connect with other writers.

Alexia Gordon

Aspiring writers should attend because they’ll have the opportunity to form support networks, invaluable in this age of long-distance publishing where your editor, publisher, and agent may live thousands of miles away from you. They’ll also be able to pick up tips and find inspiration.

Danny Gardner

Chicago makes everyone a Chicagoan for the time they’re in the city. When authors arrive at MMC, they let their hair down and become tangible. Even the shyest of aspirants will enjoy fellowship with successful writers on every level in crime fiction publishing. That leads to some amazing insights, which is a potent encouragement to keep writing.

Lori Rader-Day

And writers who are already publishing…

Mary Kubica, author of Every Last Lie

I’m so looking forward to being a part of Murder and Mayhem this year—to learn more about the craft of writing, to absorb as much knowledge as I can from some truly gifted mystery authors, and to connect with readers and writers who adore the genre as much as I do. It’s going to be a blast!

See Also

Patricia Skalka, author of Death in Cold Water

MMC is the hottest new event in town for mystery writers and fans, offering a day of entertainment and insight into the fine art of mystery writing from a host of talented and well-known authors gathered together under one roof. What’s not to like?

Lori Rader-Day

Jeffery Deaver says he has a napkin signed by Studs Terkel that says, “Jeffery. Take it easy, but take it.” What’s the best souvenir for Murder and Mayhem attendees while they’re in town?

Patricia Skalka

The ticket from their visit to the American Writers Museum.

Jamie Freveletti

Poster of the L map, something from the Chess Records studios or Kingston Mines, or a photo of State Street in the ’30’s during Capone’s era. I would also suggest something from Nelson Algren or Studs Terkel or Gwendolyn Brooks. I would go with a Muddy Waters, Sunnyland Slim, or Willie Dixon CD. Or a reprint of a photo by Vivian Maier.

Susanna Calkins

Selfie with the author?

Heather E. Ash, Mystery Writers of America, Midwest

Selfies in front of the childhood homes of Ernest Hemingway and Edgar Rice Burroughs in Oak Park.

Raymond Benson

I probably would have said “selfie with author” but was beaten to the punch.

Heather E. Ash

Three out of four authors agree that author selfies are THE hot new souvenir for writers visiting Chicago.

Lori Rader-Day

And a Murder and Mayhem in Chicago t-shirt.

Tickets to the conference are still available.

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