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Reviews Thu Oct 04 2007

Review: Chicago Blues

Chicago Blues
edited by Libby Fischer Hellman
(Bleak House Books 2007)

The Blues – they mean a lot to Chicago. Far more than the style of music that shares its name, the Blues in Chicago is the feeling of walking along a desolate street in a highly populated city, the sound of deals being made and hearts being broken in bars, and the cold of the wind that cuts through every living thing off the shores of Lake Michigan. You’d be hard-pressed to find just one definition of the Blues here, but they’re ability to hold something so different for each individual is what makes them great. A taste of that individuality can be found in the latest local anthology, aptly titled Chicago Blues, that gathers together the best of the city’s upcoming and established mystery, noir and crime fiction writers for ruminations on what the Blues in Chicago can mean. These aren’t your regular detective stories, but something more desperate and lost and as evocative as the music that inspires its name.

The stories collected in Chicago Blues are as varied as can be imagined. Stuart M. Kaminsky’s “Blue Note” opens the book, following a young man who dons his best poker face to beat a group of gamblers and ensure his mother’s safety by paying her debt. Despite his adeptness at reading his card players’ faces, there’s only so much of his own anxiety that he can keep out of the cards before he learns whether or he not he’ll be allowed to collect his mother’s monetary salvation. The suffocation of the night is palpable; you can almost smell the cigarette smoke as it wisps around their heads, mixing with the scent of bitter Scotch and the sweat of a man who may be in over his head. This is what we typically envision when we think of the Blues, but the anthology offers the authors a chance to play around with that word. Like “Blue Note,” Mary V. Welk’s “Code Blue” offers a scene from a life many of us will never see, but not in a damp, debauched poker house. An ER nurse, Frankie gets the opportunity to treat a notorious felon and rapist and administer a form of justice not sanctioned by the courts. “I don’t want you to die,” Frankie says, as we imagine her whispering fiercely into the prone man’s ear. “I want you to exist in a world where you can’t speak or move or defend yourself against the ugliness of others. I want you to be just like her, brain damaged but alive.”

This inability to speak or move – a feeling of entrapment – manifests itself not just in the villains of the city, but in the very lives these characters inhabit. “I’m running in the concrete catacombs beneath downtown Chicago, a murky netherworld that hides from the light of day,” says Brian Pinkerton’s protagonist in “Lower Wacker Blues.” Below the tourists and business people, he engages in a grownup game of hide-and-seek, called “Escape,” with a longtime friend who teaches him not just what it means to escape among the steel pillars of this hidden area of the city, but what it means to have escaped from life. Similarly, Michael Allen Dymmoch’s “A Shade of Blue” is, at its simplest, a haunting tale of a man who witnesses a crime that may or may not have occurred in the present day. In a desolate bar on Irving Park, Peter Quinn is the sole witness to a Blues singer’s murder; the only problem is that the police can’t find the body or the mysterious bar: “No murders. No missing women fitting anywhere near her description. No new Jane Does in the morgue or the hospitals. Don’t know what your witness is up to, but it sounds like he outta be writin’ for Hollywood.” Peter Quinn may not know what he’s up to either, but he serves as a warning of what can happen when you’re forced to escape your life and the events that ultimately shape it.

Chicago Blues is not all darkness and secrecy – there are several stories that take the opportunity to inject a bit of humor into an otherwise bleak landscape. In Michael A. Black’s “Chasing the Blues,” he speaks of “blue movies,” an outdated term for pornographic movies and a term his characters use to describe their job of staking out prostitutes in the city. The gruff, older cop takes this time to recount Celine DuBois, a woman who helped him out on several busts, but a woman who also may be more of a man than he ever was. Kevin Guilfoile’s “O Death Where Is Thy Sting?” garners some laughs as well, telling the story of two record collectors coveting a rare, eerie recording from Blues singer Jimmie Kane Baldwin. Legend has it that Baldwin killed his girlfriend mercilessly and her screams can be heard, from beyond the dead, on the original record. When the record is found in an old woman’s house, the two seemingly level-headed men put everything on the line to be the one to take it home, even if means that thirty-five years later they’re chasing each other across the country to snatch it from her son.

Editor Libby Fischer Hellman’s own work is featured here in “Your Sweet Man,” a story about a passionate, murderous love and the son who has grown up living with the consequences. It is as vivid and distinctive as any of the twenty-one stories in the collection and it further proves that everyone hears and feels the Blues in their own special kind of way. For readers who love mystery and crime fiction, or for those who may just want a taste of it, Chicago Blues offers haunting characters and scheming plots that keep the pages turning, even if it’s just a scant few of them before you know who the killer is, who died and how. Local readers will, after all, recognize the short story as the perfect literary form to fill the minutes of their daily commutes aboard city buses and El trains. Somewhere in the country, non-Chicagoans may pick up this book after recognizing a few of the names listed on the back cover; they may leaf through some of the pages and decide to read the stories within. Though they’re not from Chicago, they won’t be disappointed because the stories are too well crafted to fall apart simply because familiarity with the setting is taken away. But it will only be us – those of us who breathe this air, walk these streets, feel the heaviness of our city’s night – who will truly know how it feels to have the Chicago Blues.

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