Chicago (a book review)

Chicago Novel
Were you expecting a different title?

David Mamet returns to old stomping grounds in the prohibition-era crime novel Chicago. As a Chicago native, he has written about his hometown in several plays, as well as the screenplay for “The Untouchables.”

The crux of the novel is a murder mystery (several murders, actually). Reporter Mike Hodges finds himself investigating the events, but there are an abundance of suspects. From Capone’s gang to the O’Banion outfit to a jealous lover, they are either too dangerous to mess with, or unappealing as a perpetrator of such brazen work. When the story takes a personal turn, Mike must decide what he’s willing to risk to uncover the truth.

This is a David Mamet story, so it’s a little more involved below the surface. That has  less to do with the plot machinations than it does with the characters. As you might expect, characters and their interactions with each other are where the author does his best work.

The story is told mostly from Mike Hodges point of view, allowing the author to unravel him bit by bit for the reader. It took a while to understand him since, at first, I didn’t realize he would be the main character (the novel gets off to a confusing start – to me at least). Once it gets going though, he turns into a three-dimensional, and realistic character, with questionable morality one moment and heroic righteousness the next … assuming you approve of his means. In short, he’s complicated.

Secondary characters, out of necessity, are revealed through dialogue. Of course, David Mamet knows a thing or two about dialogue. A whorehouse madame, who is also Mike’s confidant, gets the best of it. She’s at turns supportive, insightful, and downright sinister – all from a seat at her kitchen table.

To that end, I have an observation. The author always has interesting dialogue – just watch any of his movies. But it’s meant to be interpreted by an actor and performed. It’s fine in a novel, but you have to set up characters differently than you do a screenplay. For me, it took some time to decipher the characters and understand how their dialogue came across. You shouldn’t have to do so much work to get into a story. Once I did, it was great. But still…

Besides characters, the author delves deep into the psyche of Chicago during the 20s, especially race relations. The Italians and the Irish figure in prominently, of course, but black Chicago is a constant undercurrent. If Mamet’s interpretation of the times is even remotely accurate, it means not as much has changed over the decades for African Americans in Chicago than one would think (police corruption aside). The only thing that seems odd, is that these elements almost end up being philosophical side-points that fill up the novel. They’re relevant to the times, but not entirely relevant to the plot.

David Mamet doesn’t write novels often and I think it shows here. It’s a good story, but the first half doesn’t exactly propel you along. It’s almost too much of a puzzle early on. I felt like the characters might crackle on screen, but not as much on the page, at least not until you get used to it. Maybe you have a higher IQ than me and can sink right into it. Once the individual threads he’s weaving start to come together, it finishes up quickly. It made me want more out of the plot itself. Or maybe I wanted the actions surrounding our reporter to have a more direct impact on him, to help shape his actions.

I mean, they did. Eventually.

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