(Editor’s note: This 45th entry in our “Story Behind the Story” series comes from Evanston, Illinois, author Sam Reaves. A former president of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he has worked as a translator and a teacher, and has published 10 novels thus far--half a dozen under his own name, and three others as “Dominic Martell.” Reaves’ most recent book is the neo-noir crime thriller Mean Town Blues (2008), but in the piece below he recalls his efforts in crafting a previous novel, Homicide 69, which was re-released last month in e-book form. You’ll find it offered by Amazon as well as by Smashwords.)
You never stop learning. In 1991 my first novel, A Long Cold Fall, was published by Putnam. It was a more or less hard-boiled tale about a Chicago cab driver, Cooper MacLeish, who gets involved in a murder investigation. It was set mostly in the Rogers Park neighborhood where I lived and there wasn’t a lot of police procedure or insider knowledge in the story. It was a decent first novel, but it wasn’t really a Chicago novel, in the sense that it could have taken place pretty much anywhere. I wrote three more books in that series, each one a little more
connected to the city, a little more rooted in the conditions that make it a great
setting for writing about crime. I was learning.
I didn’t grow up in Chicago, but when I published that first novel I’d lived there for more than 10 years, reading the papers and talking to people, and I thought I knew a lot about the city. I didn’t, really, but I knew enough to be getting on with. For that first book my research consisted largely of talking to a former Chicago Police Department (CPD) homicide detective, who’d been introduced to me by a mutual friend. We met over coffee and he was gentle with me; I could see the amusement in his eyes as the expanse of my ignorance became apparent to him. I mined the information he gave me for another couple of books’ worth of faked expertise.
I got distracted by other things for a while, writing very different books under a different name, but then in 1997 I came across a book in my local library that got me energized about Chicago stories again. The book was called The Enforcer, by William Roemer, formerly the head of the FBI’s organized-crime squad in Chicago, and it was a biography of Tony Spilotro, the Chicago hood who was sent out to Las Vegas in the 1970s to watch over things and made so much noise that he wound up getting whacked and then immortalized in a Nicholas Pileggi book and a Martin Scorsese film (1995’s Casino). Roemer had butted heads with Spilotro in Chicago early in his career, and though he wasn’t much of a prose stylist, he certainly had the goods on Spilotro and his Outfit pals. I’d been aware of Chicago’s entrenched organized-crime culture, of course, but had never really gotten interested in it as a source of fictional material. Now it hooked me. When I finished reading Roemer’s book I realized I had been sitting on an inexhaustible fount of inspiration for a crime writer.
I started reading everything I could find about the Outfit, and I started talking to people again. I networked and cold-called and went to meet people and listened as they tried to educate me. I plotted, researched, and produced a novel in eight months, the fastest I’ve ever worked. The novel was Dooley’s Back, the story of Frank Dooley, an ex-cop coming back to Chicago after a self-imposed exile to find that his former partner has a gambling problem and consequently a mob problem. That mob problem is the mainspring of the plot.
Meanwhile, Chicago’s mob problem had begun to seem to me like a potentially rich literary theme. You can’t understand Chicago without knowing its history as a wide-open frontier town that exploded into a major metropolis in a few short decades, entrenching a culture of corruption that endures to this day, though much attenuated by successful federal prosecutions. Chicago is considerably cleaner than it used to be, but it has been irrevocably shaped by the vice and corruption that lay at its heart from the beginning. And there’s a great deal of human drama in that.
Within a year I was working on a prequel to Dooley’s Back, a book on a larger scale. This one was a big-picture attempt to capture a whole era. Set in 1969, it featured Frank Dooley’s father, Mike, an old-school homicide dick working a mob-related murder case against the background of the rapid and traumatic social changes of the late ’60s.
I had gotten interested in the succession struggle that took place in the Outfit as Paul “The Waiter” Ricca and Tony Accardo got old and attempted to retire while leaving some kind of stable regime in place. No Ottoman palace or third-world dictatorship ever saw more intrigue and backstabbing. I fictionalized elements of the struggle and used them as the basis of the novel, entitled Homicide 69, in which I sought to capture the city’s culture of corruption at a moment of crisis.
To do that, I needed to speak with people who had been there. Networking again, I was put in touch with a retired CPD detective named John DiMaggio, who had seen and done just about everything over the course of his long police career. John turned out to be the best sort of informant a writer could have. He gave me reams of information about police procedures, circa 1969, reviewed my chapters as they were written, and provided insights drawn from a career spent confronting corruption within the police department.
Another contact of mine was Arthur Bilek, now the head of the Chicago Crime Commission, who modernized CPD training under reform superintendent O.W. Wilson in the early ’60s, before heading the Cook County Sheriff’s Police. In the latter position Bilek confronted Richard Cain, a mysterious figure who rose high in Chicago law enforcement--despite notorious mob ties--before dying in a high-profile hit in 1973. The fictionalized character of Cain is at the heart of the plot of Homicide 69. Over a memorable lunch one day, Art sketched out for me the labyrinthine connections between cops, politicians, and mobsters of that era, scrawling an intricate diagram on the paper mat
covering the table that I wish I had had the sense to collect and keep.
It was a priceless education. The lesson for me as a writer was that you have to do your homework. My books got better as I learned more about the city I lived in, exploring its ethnic chemistry, geography, rivalries, tensions, and power relationships. You can make a lot of things up, but if you aspire to write fiction that will last, it has to be firmly rooted in reality. A real novel with a chance to transcend its genre conveys something true about people and their environment. And to accomplish that you can’t just sit at the desk and recycle ideas from other books. You have to go out into the real world and talk with people. It’s an education, and it has to be a continuing one.