Centuries and Sleuths at 7419 W. Madison St. is more than just a bookstore. Specializing in history and mystery books, it’s also a lifestyle and a meeting ground. Owner Augie Aleksy has created special programs that go far beyond a typical book signing or discussion group.
On March 7, Cindy Pontoriero, the first female homicide detective on the Chicago police force, met there with members of a writing group, Sisters in Crime, to talk about her career. Sisters in Crime is a group of women who have devoted themselves to the genre of mystery, and gather about four times a year.
For any mystery fan, the most fascinating aspect of the occasion was no doubt that Cindy Pontoriero had the same sort of wit and irony one might expect from a fictional character. For instance, in her early years as a detective, she was put primarily on sex cases, which were considered more appropriate for the delicacy of women than murder. Pontoriero said this was just fine with her.
“It’s wonderful to have a live victim to interview instead of a dead victim,” Pontoriero said.
Pontoriero started her work as a detective in 1965, when the first police woman examinations were given out. She had an easy time passing the test, she said, because she’d already been working for several years as a stenographer in the detective department and had learned the business second-hand through the officers’ stories.
Nevertheless, when it came time for an arrest she was always sent to the backdoor, usually with some other police officer who was an older, fatherly type. Unlike in the fictional mysteries, Pontoriero said, the crooks never come out of the backdoor. The rest of the team would be guarding the front.
On one occasion though, she remembers when a suspect with a butcher knife came running out the back way and she pulled her gun. Her partner, who was “a very funny man,” kept his own gun holstered. Instead he said to the suspect, “If I were you, I’d put that knife away, because a woman with a gun is a scary thing.”
But over the years, Pontoriero has often stayed in the office when it was time to make the arrest, always emphasizing that as a woman, she had skills that were complimentary to those of the men on the force.
“I can get a gorilla to knock down the door for me,” Pontoriero said. “Detective work is about who knows which door it is that needs to be knocked down.”
Pontoriero talked about the changes that have occurred in the police force now that information is available instantaneously via computers. In the old days, they had to create their own system of index cards for tracking criminal activity, or it might have taken days to receive reports, which were ordered from federal investigators.
She talked about how television has made it difficult for the police. People seem to expect immediate results, and often don’t understand that the police are up against limited resources, she said.
“If the criminal jumps on an airplane, we simply don’t have what it takes to follow them,” she said.
Her favorite parts of the job were the relationships she established and all the stories that she compiled over years. But she conceded that her years of police work made her a paranoid and possibly overly-strict mother.
The days are also fast disappearing when independent bookstores, such as Centuries and Sleuths, which have the leisure and incentive to provide such events for their patrons, are economically viable. Aleksy, the store’s owner, said that even seven years back when Sisters in Crime first started meeting at his store, there were still four or five independent bookstores specializing in mystery novels throughout Chicagoland.
At that time, Sisters in Crime alternated meetings between the various stores. Today, the only other bookstore remaining is Alibi Books in Lisle, Ill. Aleksy now plays host to most of the meetings for Sisters in Crime, as well as the Midwest Region of Mystery Writers of America.
“People come here because of my specialization,” Aleksy said. “I know all the titles and all the authors, as well as the tastes of my customers. I can make good recommendations. But keeping an independent bookstore open is just not a viable career anymore. It’s more of a vocation, as I keep trying to convince my accountant.”
The next Sisters in Crime meeting will be on Saturday, May 5 at 11 a.m. The guest speaker will be Alzina Stone Dale, and she will discuss author H.R.F. Keating’s contributions to the genre. In the meantime, the mystery discussion group will be meeting on April 21 at 2 p.m. to discuss “Dog Day” by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett.