The gangs are all here in Mamet’s ‘Chicago’

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - BOOKS - Brian Truitt

David Mamet’s di­a­logue has long had the metro­nomic power of a tommy gun, which is fit­ting for Chicago, his splen­did new tale of mob­sters and news­pa­per­men.

The play­wright and screen­writer’s first novel in more than two decades, this 1920s-set mur­der mys­tery takes Mamet back to the Pro­hi­bi­tion era of his home­town. Chicago (Cus­tom House, 332 pp., ★★★g) is a story of lost love, ob­ses­sion, re­venge and the need for truth shared by old-school gumshoes and re­porters alike. The fact that it’s proudly soaked in hooch, pros­ti­tu­tion and gang­land crime only makes it that much more sat­is­fy­ing.

Al Capone’s Ital­ian gang runs the South Side of town, Dion O’Ban­ion is in charge of the Ir­ish Mafia on the North Side, and Chicago Tri­bune writer Mike Hodge is try­ing not to tick off ei­ther of them. A for­mer World War I air­man, Mike drinks heav­ily and ban­ters with fel­low scribe Cle­ment Parlow while fos­ter­ing a re­la­tion­ship with nice Catholic girl An­nie Walsh — un­til she’s shot dead one day in Mike’s apart­ment, right in front of him, by an un­known as­sailant.

Af­ter nav­i­gat­ing a down­ward spi­ral of al­co­hol and guilt, Mike goes into de­tec­tive mode and bumps into an­other case: of a mur­dered speakeasy owner, his dead part­ner, a miss­ing mis­tress and a tor­tured maid. Mamet grounds Chicago by fill­ing out the town’s won­der­fully seedy corners: A madam named Peek­a­boo is one of Mike’s con­fi­dantes.

If you’re a fan of the sig­na­ture “Mamet speak” of Glen­garry Glen Ross, there’s plenty to love here, es­pe­cially with scenes set around Mike and Parlow’s work at the Tri­bune. “Man bites dog is too in­ter­est­ing to be news,” their ed­i­tor tells them. And Mike is a tal­ented writer when he’s not plas­tered. His lead for the break­ing news of a bul­let-rid­den speakeasy man­ager be­gins with the man dead of “a bro­ken heart, it be­ing bro­ken by the sev­eral slugs from a .45.”

Mamet’s ra­zor-sharp prose is des­per­ately needed in the first half of Chicago; the novel may take place in the Windy City, but the pac­ing isn’t ex­actly brisk. Mo­men­tum picks up as Mike starts putting the puz­zle pieces to­gether. Mamet digs into the racial pol­i­tics of the time and probes how the Great War con­tin­ued to af­fect men af­ter they re­turned home. Not to men­tion the fact that be­ing in the know back then some­times got you put 6 feet un­der.

Mamet had plenty of gang­ster bona fides af­ter his screen­play for 1987’s The Un­touch­ables. In Chicago, he roots a riv­et­ing crime drama in a throw­back jour­nal­is­tic world, when you could yell for a copy boy to bring you Dixie cups for your il­le­gal liquor. But this novel has a ro­man­tic heart, and the emo­tional stakes en­rich the whiskey-drenched who­dunit.

Au­thor David Mamet

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