A pair of recent Chicago-set novels show the breadth of Chicago’s robust crime-fiction scene.
Murder Knocks Twice is the first in a new series by Susanna Calkins, the author of the award-winning Lucy Campion mysteries set in 1600s London. Calkins has turned her sights on her adopted hometown for the story of a young 1920s flapper who stumbles into a job as a cigarette girl at The Third Door, a fictional speakeasy set on Chicago’s Near West Side. Murder Knocks Twice is fun and rollicking, with plenty of historical Chicago detail and jazzy lingo.
Temper is also Layne Fargo’s first Chicago novel — because it’s her debut. Temper is a feminist psychological thriller set in the Chicago theater world. This sinister, of-the-moment novel focuses on the power struggle between an ambitious actress and an abusive director, but you don’t have to be a theater buff to enjoy it. The story brims with complex female characters, psychosexual manipulation, and plenty of drama on and off the stage.
Below is an interview between Chicago Review of Books contributor Lori Rader-Day and both Calkins and Fargo. The conversations are combined and lightly edited.
Just about the only thing your two books have in common is that they take place among the familiar sights of Chicago. Tell me why your story is a quintessential Chicago story. Why couldn’t it have been set anywhere else?
Fargo: The original inspiration for the book was the real-life scandal at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre, so I honestly never thought of setting the book anywhere else. The fictional theater company in Temper is a tiny storefront space, which is something I think of as quintessentially Chicago — and also the perfect setting for the raw, claustrophobic mood I wanted to create. When my agent was shopping the novel to publishers, I spoke to some editors who suggested transplanting the action to New York or Los Angeles because they thought it would give the story a broader appeal. Clearly they weren’t familiar with Chicago’s world-class theater scene! The editor I eventually chose loved the setting and wanted me to add more Chicago flavor to the book (which is how I knew she was the right one).
Calkins: Chicago, speakeasies, cocktails and crime just go together. There was no question in my mind when I first envisioned a Roaring Twenties novel — it had to be set in Chicago. When I first started telling people that I was writing this book, Chicagoans immediately began to share amazing Prohibition stories that had been passed down through the generations. They’d say things like, “My great-grandfather used to cut Al Capone’s hair.” “My grand-parents were bootleggers in Lincoln Park.” “My grand-mother ran a teashop in Pilsen that was a front for a speakeasy.” (I used that idea in my book, though I changed the location). I grew up in Philadelphia, which also has a dark and glitzy Prohibition history, but the stories there never seemed as lived, personal, and real as they do here in Chicago.
What kind of research did you do into Chicago’s locations and culture to write your book?
Calkins: Researching this novel was so fun! To learn more about how people actually experienced the Prohibition, I spent some time checking out the exhibits at the Chicago History Museum and the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum. I also wandered the UIC campus [where the fictional speakeasy would have been on 1929] several times to get a sense of how the streets were laid out, always stopping in the delightful The Coffee Alley, which helped me visualize what homes and businesses would have looked like back then. And of course, it was absolutely imperative for me to take Chicago’s Original Gangster Tour with my elder son, which was extremely helpful in seeing how key events of Prohibition played out in different regions of the city. Lastly, I spent a lot of time trying out different Prohibition-era cocktails (research!), and of course it was imperative that I check out the Green Mill, to get a feel for how a speakeasy might have really operated when I dreamed up The Third Door.
Fargo: There are a ton of real Chicago locations in Temper. The main character lives in Andersonville, and several scenes take place at some of my favorite restaurants in the neighborhood, like Lady Gregory’s and Andie’s. There’s also a pivotal scene set at the Shakespeare statue in Lincoln Park — I’ve had several Chicagoans tell me they didn’t even know that statue was there until they read about it in my book!
The Chicago theater scene was obviously a huge source of inspiration as well. I’ve seen so much amazing work over my ten years living in Chicago, but some of my favorite companies to frequent are Steep Theatre, Boho Theatre, and A Red Orchid Theatre. A Red Orchid has a funny little bathroom in the lobby that I paid direct homage to in my book — down to the notch cut out of the wall for the toilet handle.
What did you learn about Chicago while writing your book that you didn’t know from living here?
Calkins: There were actually quite a few things that I hadn’t known about Chicago, especially in the 1920s, before I started writing my book. For example, I had no idea about the wide range of tunnels that crisscross below the city (then and now). In the 1920s, there were quite a few abandoned freight car lines that interested me in particular, as I imagined this would be a great way to transport goods, materials and, if necessary, people, in and out of a speakeasy.
I also learned quite a bit about how the alcohol trade broke down within the city, often along gang lines. Different parts of the city had different access to different types of alcohol. The North Side gangs had easier access to better grade alcohol (like rum, wine, and finer whiskeys) brought in across Lake Michigan from Canada (out of the Caribbean). The South and West Side gangs had different types of bootlegging operations, with whole “cottage industry” production of gin. Many families supplemented their income by working for different gangs. Each week they would receive the raw materials needed to create bathtub gin, produce it in their “alky” (still). A week later a member of the gang would pay them for the product, and bring more materials. Gangs operating out of the South and West sides also seemed to have easier access to Kentucky bourbon and various wines produced across the Midwest.
Fargo: I’m not sure I learned a lot of brand-new Chicago information, but writing a book set just around the corner from where I live definitely made me appreciate the city even more. Since I was trying to make the setting come alive for people who’ve never been here before, I had to slow down and notice sensory details I would usually overlook while rushing around, trying to run errands or catch the train. It made me love living here even more than I already did — it really is my favorite city in the world (yes, even in the winter!).
Chicago has been described (by me, maybe?) as a great place to be a crime writer. What do you think about that? Why or why not?
Fargo: I’ve always found it funny that Chicago is known for being full of crime and corruption, but also for the Midwestern niceness of the people. That totally fits with the crime writing community here: we all have dark and twisted imaginations, but everyone I’ve met has been incredibly kind and supportive.
Chicago is really a great place to be a writer, period, because of the reasonable cost of living and all the literary resources, like the Chicago Public Library, StoryStudio Chicago, the American Writers Museum — and of course our phenomenal selection of local independent bookstores.
Calkins: Chicago boasts an incredible network of amazing bookstores, libraries, and readers who love and support crime fiction. From Centuries and Sleuths in Forest Park to 57th Street Books in Hyde Park, from the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square to the Book Stall in Winnetka, we are lucky to have so many wonderful book stores that care about showcasing crime fiction and their authors. Additionally, Chicago has an incredibly vibrant community of crime fiction writers, as well as thriving chapters of two national crime fiction organizations –– Sisters in Crime (Chicagoland Chapter) and Mystery Writers of America (Midwest Chapter).
Chicago is a fantastic place to write (and set) crime fiction, especially for someone writing about the Twenties. For me, exploring both the glitz and grit of the city were essential for understanding the deep impact that Prohibition had on society and culture — some of which continues to resonate today.
What’s your favorite bookish spot in Chicago and why?
Calkins: Hands down, I have loved the Newberry Library ever since I commuted from Purdue University as a grad student to take a class on Renaissance culture. A few years ago I had the great honor of speaking to an audience there about my first series, and that moment remains one of the highlights of my writing career.
Fargo: Women and Children First is the indie bookstore of my dreams. I go there when I need to cheer myself up (buying books is the best kind of retail therapy), or when I’m celebrating something — including my book launch! They hosted the release party for Temper and it was fantastic. It’s the kind of bookstore I would travel across the world to visit, and I feel so fortunate to have it right here in my neighborhood.
Murder Knocks Twice
By Susanna Calkins
Published April 30, 2019
By Layne Fargo
Published July 2, 2019
Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated (and multi-award-winning) author of The Death of Us, Death at Greenway, The Lucky One, Under a Dark Sky, and others. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' event Midwest Mystery Conference and teaches creative writing for Northwestern University's School of Professional Studies.