“Whew! That was close,” Louis whispers in Joan Bard-Collins’ historical “Let me show you what I found.”
The famous Chicago architect Louis Sullivan has nearly been caught sneaking into the city hall records office on LaSalle Street to help his friend, a former Pinkerton detective, solve a crime.
Sullivan as sleuth? Why not? Through her hero, the author reveals her passion for Chicago’s architectural history in her captivating detective novel, Honor Above All, published by Forest Park-based Allium Press of Chicago.
Sullivan is an appealing character, despite his gambling habits and bad temper. At the same time, he is a literary lens through which Bard-Collins, an Oak Park resident, explores a little-known power struggle over the construction of the city’s first skyscrapers.
For a Chicago history lover, it’s fun to read the book and tour the sites of the events by following a map provided by the author. In this unorthodox way, readers learn more than in a basic architectural tour.
“Rescuing Chicago from Capone … one book at a time,” is the mission of Emily Victorson, the publisher of Allium Press. In her goal “to illuminate the rich tapestry of Chicago’s history,” Victorson has created a new literary wave of historical fiction set in Chicago.
“What really resonates with me in novels — either that I enjoy reading or that I am interested in publishing — is a very strong sense of place and time,” Victorson explains on the publishing company’s web page.
Allium tricoccum is the Latin name for the plant that gave both Chicago its name and the press its logo when Victorson launched her publishing house in 2009. A former librarian with the Chicago History Museum, she insists that the details in the historical novels she publishes be accurate.
Allium also publishes contemporary mysteries and thrillers, as well as literary fiction, all with a Chicago connection.
Frances McNamara’s Death at Chinatown, one of her Emily Cabot Mysteries, features two remarkable Chinese women, Mary Stone and Ida Kahn, who came to America in 1886 to study medicine. The murder mystery is set in Chicago’s original Chinatown on South Clark Street.
Chicago has inspired great literature ever since the Great Fire of 1871, when the city started rebuilding, inventing new architecture, and innovating in business. Theodore Dreiser, Saul Bellow, and Nelson Algren wrote world-famous books about newcomers to Chicago looking for their destiny.
Unfortunately, many people today no longer know much about their work. Milestones such as the Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the horrific work and sanitary conditions at the Union Stock Yards, are almost forgotten.
The more popular literary genres, such as crime, mystery, and romance, are often looked down upon. But Allium Press aims to publish books with educational value, more sophisticated and artistic guides to historical Chicago.
The Reason for Time, by Mary Burns, is written in the language and accents of the early 20th century. Burns, a former journalist, spotted surprising headlines in old newspapers while doing research — between July 21 and July 30, 1919 a series of shocking events took place in Chicago: a blimp crash in the Loop, a major race riot, a streetcar strike, and a child abduction.
Added to that were soldiers returning from World War I and the beginning of the African American migration to the northern states. Burns transformed those events, as seen through the eyes of a young Irish-American working girl, into her novel. Maeve falls in love with a streetcar conductor and, when she learns from a newspaper that he was injured during the riot, she treks across town to find him. Unlike Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, she is naïve and sincere, and her genuine love gets her in serious trouble.
As the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution of 1917 approaches, interest is increasing in the origins of Chicago’s radicalism. One might wonder why Chicago never hosted a socialist revolution, despite being the epicenter of a powerful American labor movement.
There is a good answer in the middle grade novel City of Grit and Gold by Maud Macrory Powell. The novel is set in a Jewish neighborhood of Chicago during the Haymarket Affair of 1886. Seen through the eyes of 12-year-old Addie, the book describes a conflict between her father, who detests unions, and her favorite Uncle Chaim, who is fighting for the eight-hour workday.
The girl is attending the Haymarket rally when a bomb explodes and gunfire erupts, killing both policemen and workers.
“The unions have been weakened,” Uncle Chaim explains. “People are turning against us because of the bomb thrown at the police, and they’re no longer willing to look at the real problem, which is the treatment of the workers. The riot’s been a great blow to our cause.”
That book also provides a map of the neighborhood and Haymarket Square, a practical guide for historical tourists to visit.
Victorson came to publishing via a circuitous career path. After she was laid off from her job as a historian and book designer during the recession of 2009, she made the risky decision to do what she really loves and found a small press.
In the end, it’s hard to fight the ghosts of the Mafia. But, like the Untouchables, Victorson is laboring to reveal little-known chapters of the past — and thereby rescue the city’s history from Al Capone.
Allium’s newest title, which will be released on Dec. 12, is Tony Romano’s Where My Body Ends and the World Begins, a novel about a young man’s struggle with the psychological toll of being a survivor of the 1958 Our Lady of Angels School fire. All of Allium’s titles can be found at Forest Park’s own Centuries and Sleuths Bookstore, as well as at other bookstores and libraries, and on Amazon.