13. Chicago Lightning by Max Allan Collins - I hesitate to put these books together since one was very enjoyable and the other one was just tedious, but I did finish both of them today and they are related since they take place in the early 20th century and they both concern corruption and politics.
Despite the fact that I was recently trashing Low Town for being a by-the-numbers noir mystery complete with a cynical detective who is an ex-cop, a city ruled by corruption and a mystery that leads right back to the detective's best friends, I love the works of Max Allan Collins. It appears that there is a definite difference between being derivative and being lazy. Max Allan Collins is one of the best imitators of the Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammet/Mickey Spillane style. The detective that inhabits these stories is Nathan Heller who is cynical enough to hobnob with well known gangsters and cop to a history as a Chicago police officer who engaged in graft and corruption but possessed of a moral compass that allows him to take revenge on people who have manipulated the system.
Writing about it makes him seem like a cliche, but there are several things that save this book from the Low Town bottom feeding. First, Max Allan Collins has been doing this genre since Ms. Tree and he learned how to get over the clumsy editorializing with that comic book. Second, he's a great stylist and there's not a clumsy sentence or embarrassing line of dialogue in the book. Third and most importantly, these stories are based on real cases. Instead of going along the the trajectory of the cynical detective vs. the cops in a way that wraps everything up in a bow, the stories follow the messy narratives of real life. For example, "Unreasonable Doubt" begins as a case where Heller is supposed to investigate a potential gold digger for the daughter of rich clients, but it quickly turns into a double murder involving dynamite. And since this is based on a famous trial, the ending is not a tidy "and then the murderers went to jail." In another story, a woman hires Heller to tail her husband but he soon learns that he is working for a woman who is insane and the relationship between the couple becomes steadily more messed up the longer things happen.
This book hits the sweet spot between derivative and original. It's just familiar enough to be a comfort for fans of detective fiction but is original enough to feel new and daring. I'm continually impressed with Max Allan Collins' ability to hit that best-of-both-worlds place. Not always but he definitely does it enough to keep me buying his books.
14.Plunkitt of Tammany Hall by William L. Riordon - If this entry was solely a review of this book, the headline would be "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUTUP YOU DELUSIONAL FUCK" because as thrilling as it might be to read a Tammany Hall politician speaking on behalf of himself and defending his record as a leader of an institution that is for historians synonymous with corruption almost as much as "The Chicago Machine" or "The Pinkertons." I wanted to read Clay Davis or his real life counterpart of Marion Barry speaking on behalf of himself and stating that even though there might be improprieties, you have to make deals to get things done.
Instead I got a proud autodidact talking about how book learning is no good for a politician and how he is a better politician because he spends a great deal of time getting to know people and meeting their needs.
That part kind of justifies the praise that the book gets as an important political work of urban planning.
However, I was more bothered with the bits of the book that got this asshole kicked out of office after it was published. Those would be the "honest graft" bits and the continual denigration of reform candidates in general and civil service exams in particular. As far as honest graft is concerned, Plunkitt is very proud of the way that he buys up land that he knows that the city wants and then holds the city hostage until he gets a lot more money than the people who sold it to him would get. Somehow he doesn't see that he's ripping off the people who hold the land in the first place and the taxpayers who are footing the bill. Because he is engaging in schemes instead of outright stealing the money, he considers it fine (even if he claims that he never said "honest graft")
The worst part of the book is the civil service exams. Note that this is a guy who is proud of his ignorance which is a particularly loathsome aspect of American politics. Since we are not a nation that believes in class, our politicians have to pretend to be "just simple folks" even if they are sly bastards. Adlai Stevenson lost because of the "egghead" image. Bill Clinton had to dial back the Rhodes Scholar aspect of his personality and come off like Bubba. Complete and utter morons like Dubya and Jesse Ventura won their seats against smarter and more articulate candidates because their opponents didn't come off folksy enough and seemed to be elitists.
But Plunkitt not only spends a great deal of time engaging in the "Well I may not be book smart..." discourse, he also acts like he's superior for his ignorance. And then he keeps bashing civil service exams based on the fact that instead of Tammany Hall rewarding its better volunteers with jobs, it can't because its volunteers have to take these exams with all this book learning about Shakespeare (?) and rainfall (?) and whatever. At least four times in the 60 pages of his talk, he brings up a great Tammany Hall volunteer who was all patriotic, but THEN he tried to take the civil service exam. And then he became an anarchist, or he died, or he died fighting against the Americans in the Spanish-American War.
Politicians talking shit is a time honored tradition in American politics. Hell, Ed Koch just died and was honored at his funeral for his bullshit skills. Still, that doesn't make them any less noxious.