It was a literary event that could only take place in Forest Park.

Two authors who dig deep into the history of Chicago came to town, July 31, to celebrate the release of two new books published by a Forest Park publishing company in a Forest Park bookstore. Emily Victorson, owner of Allium Press, welcomed authors D.M. Pirrone and Frances McNamara to an author reading event at Centuries and Sleuths on Madison Street.  

Both authors shared their enthusiasm and great respect for bookstore owner Augie Aleksy and the author forum Aleksy creates in his independent bookshop that helps authors connect with the people that matter most: their readers.

“We just read at the Prairie Path bookstore in Wheaton, and the owners said they were inspired by Centuries and Sleuths,” Pirrone said.  

The authors read from their newest works, one of which hasn’t even been officially published. 

Pirrone’s newest novel, Shall We Not Revenge? is a police detective novel set in the winter of 1872 when the city was still reeling from the events of the Great Chicago Fire, and half the town was a charred wreck.

Death at Chinatown, by McNamara is the fifth in a series set in 1895, featuring her female University of Chicago graduate school amateur sleuth, Emily Cabot.

Five years ago when Forest Park’s Emily Victorson started Allium, she figured a Chicago-centric historical fiction publishing company would get fistfuls of manuscripts over the transom about the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. But Pirrone’s is the first. The title comes from a Shakespeare line, Victorson said. 

Researching the era, Pirrone said she came upon an observation by historian Donald L. Miller that police work in the aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire became very tough.

“Lots of people left the city and new people showed up,” Pirrone said. “The police had a hard time keeping track of the bad guys. And new bad guys came to town,” Pirrone said. 

There were only 18 detectives in the whole Chicago Police Department at the time, although many more patrolmen. “The place was in flux and ferment,” said Pirrone, whose novel describes an Irish detective sent to the old West Loop Jewish community (around Washington Boulevard and Franklin Street) to investigate the death of a rabbi. The rabbi’s daughter becomes his assistant, and they build a friendship and partnership, said Victorson, noting that lots of charity dollars came into Chicago after the fire. The book describes a fund scandal at the private Relief and Aid Society, in charge of doling out the money to Chicagoans who lost their homes and possessions.

 “One reviewer called the book ‘deeply nuanced,’ which was nice,” Victorson said.

McNamara’s Death at Chinatown is fifth in a series set in 1895, based on real historical figures the University of Chicago librarian ran across at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago. 

Two Chinese women, Mary Stone and Ida Kahn, studied medicine at the University of Michigan and then returned to China to build hospitals and recruit other women to medicine. They summered in Chicago in 1896, McNamara found.

Chicago’s Chinatown in 1896 was in the area of Clark Avenue and Harrison Street.

McNamara’s female heroine, Emily Cabot, assists the women when one is accused of poisoning a Chinese herbalist. 

The book doesn’t hit until September, but Victorson said she got advance copies for Centuries and Sleuths “because Augie’s special.”

Pirrone and McNamara will visit the Nineteenth Century Charitable Association in Oak Park next March. 

Contact: jean@forestparkreivew

Twitter: @FP_Review 

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...