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