Poor Chicago. It’s never got over Prohibition. The Windy City is forever stuck in the 1920s – speakeasies, mobsters, crooked cops and bootleg liquor. And, of course, Al Capone. And murder.

Cover of Murder City by Michael LesyThere’s plenty of murder in Michael Lesy’s book. That’s what he’s giving us: the bloody history of Chicago in the ‘20s. All the hoods and the hobos. All the broads. And the cops and courts and slimy lawyers. Mostly crooked. Of course. They all were. Don’t we know it? And gee, it moves at a pace. Short. Sharp. Staccato. Like a cop’s handgun going off. The sort they all carried. Let’s look at some of the dirt Lesy’s dug up.

“Carl never lied. He never drank, never smoked, never chewed gum. Everyone knew. Worked in his father’s butcher shop. The ladies liked him. Worked there, then went in the Army. Joined up in 1914. About the time his mother went crazy.” That’s how it begins, the first story – of Carl Wanderer. Of course he came to a bad end. They thought he was a war hero. But he wasn’t. He’d got his girl to take her savings out of the bank – a lot of money – but on her doorstep a guy suddenly came up on them and was about to attack her. Carl killed him to defend her. Typical Carl – a war hero. That’s what all the papers said. But wait. Maybe it was set up? The police beat a confession out of him. But then he changed his story. Maybe he was insane? The court psychologist said so. And so there was a trial. And then an appeal. And then a new story. In the end nobody knew for sure what the hell had happened, and whether he was sane or insane, and whether one or two men had been involved and whether Carl had planned the whole thing all along. And so Carl was found guilty and sentenced to hang. The Governor didn’t intervene. Down Carl went – to a drop at the end of a rope.

Lesy’s got another story about Harvey Church. He couldn’t stop thinking about Packard cars. He wanted one, set his heart on a twin-six. He wasn’t rich. He lived with his mother. And one day he went to a salesman, and persuaded him to sell him a Packard and come round with a driver to deliver it. They were never seen alive again. Seems that Harvey killed them both. The driver was a Swede called Ausmus, and the police found him buried in the yard. He’d had a brassiere belonging to Harvey’s mother stuffed into his mouth. Harvey wouldn’t talk, so the police gave him the third degree. They shouted at him, they beat him. Finally he confessed to both murders. But was it a real confession? He later retracted it. He was tried and found guilty. Sentenced to hang. But then he went into a decline. Wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t move. And so he had to be carried to the gallows backwards in a chair. His heart beat for 15 minutes after the trap was sprung. Poor Harvey.

The trouble is that after five or six cases like this you get the picture fairly easily. And there are 17 cases in all. Most of them were covered in the press – after all, this was the city where the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Daily News and the other papers slugged it out every day and created the memorable press frenzy of The Front Page. Their accounts were breathless, racy, up to the minute, and they loved murder cases. There were interviews galore with the cops, murderers and victims. All good source material for a book, but in the end, 80 years later, do they really give us the feel of the place? The prose reads like a clichéd version of Philip Marlowe, and becomes wearying. There are too many names, too many details.

Does it matter whether Clarence came home at 6 or 7 o’clock, whether the baby was crying or not, and what Mrs McClune told him about Thomas? Lesy wants the details, one by one, to build up the overall atmosphere. But we never really get beneath the surface. No character ever has more than a walk-on part, and there’s certainly not much time to round out a personality between the gun going off and the drop from the gallows.

Chicago was the epicentre of murder at the time. It was the quintessential city of the American immigrant – brash, harsh, fast and dangerous. Plenty of films have given us the feel: the streetcars, the burly cops, the reporters always in trilbies, the homely women and desperate menfolk on the make. Lesy has their pictures in his book: the mugshots of the murderers that were splashed across the Tribune, the courtroom controntations and the broads in their bonnets. The language, the clothes, even the journalism, are stuck in the ‘20s. Now and then we get a bit of context: what Hitler was doing in Europe, what was going on in the White House, the state capitol, in universities and factories across America. But not much. Standard Oil, Liberty Bonds, war veterans and Prohibition are buzzwords that show what else the papers were talking about. But 17 murder cases are not really enough to hang a whole social history on. And in the end, we just get sick of them. Cheap. Shallow. Dull. What a shame. ■

Murder City is published by Norton