I love history and always have–to the point where it became my college major. More specifically, I relish learning about the colorful and free-wheeling history of Chicago, which along with an assortment of its suburbs has been home for all of my seven decades.
After I concluded that I had written enough Nero Wolfe novels–seven in all–I began contemplating a historical mystery series. I knew that I wanted to set the stories in Chicago, in what I think of as the "noir era" of the '30s and '40s. (I've always felt that in a previous life, I must have written for–or gotten rejected by–Black Mask, the great hard-boiled pulp detective magazine of that period.)
The amateur-sleuth protagonist in my series, Steve "Snap" Malek, toils as a wry, irreverent, and cynical–what else would you expect?–police reporter for the Chicago Tribune. This was hardly a surprising choice as that paper was my own employer for more than 20 years in the '60s and '70s, after I had done a short stint with the Associated Press and as a police reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago, a now-defunct local news service that served as a sort of "boot camp" for aspiring newspaper reporters.
I set my first Malek novel, Three Strikes You're Dead, in 1938, the first full year of my life. It centers on the murder of a fictional reform candidate for mayor of Chicago. I began my research, as I have in subsequent books in the series, by going to the library and poring over the microfilm files of the Chicago daily newspapers of the time–five of them in those halcyon days for the press. (I should note here that in what must surely be seen as a nerdy trait, I enjoy, really enjoy, doing research. Sorry, but there it is.)
I spent hours burrowing into those old newspaper files, finding all sorts of tidbits, most of which I had the sense not to use. Here I bow to my good friend and fellow mystery author Max Allan Collins, who cautions against taking every "interesting" fact you find during your research and dumping it into your story.
My time at the library did bear fruit, however. I learned in these newspaper files that the great actress Helen Hayes was in Chicago in 1938, playing Queen Victoria in the play "Victoria Regina," where she aged 50 years on the stage every night. I also learned that the once-great baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean was traded to the Chicago Cubs that year in the twilight of his career, a deal that actually helped the Cubs win the National League pennant.
I wove both Miss Hayes and the flamboyant pitcher into my novel, Dean in a relatively major role. I also found ways to work Al Capone and future Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley into the storyline in what I hope and were plausible additions to the narrative. I delight in mixing real and fictional people in these Chicago historical stories, and I strive to make the historical figures behave as I believe they would have.
Intrepid reporter Steve Malek interacts with all these people as well as with members of the Chicago crime syndicate as he doggedly pursues what he hopes will be a scoop–identifying the mayoral candidate's murder. He comes close to this goal, but, but…
In my subsequent Malek novels, Shadow of the Bomb (set in 1942) and A Death in Pilsen (1946), I also attempted to blend real people and events in the Chicago of the era with my fictional characters after having done extensive research on the times.
Shadow of the Bomb takes place within the ivy-walled Gothic campus of the University of Chicago in 1942, where intensive research is being conducted, supposedly in secret, on the development of the ultimate weapon to end World War II–the atomic bomb. Two octogenarian friends who were students on the Chicago campus at the time both suggested to me that word about the nature of this nuclear work was leaking out.
This gave me the idea to set a brace of killings against the intrigue of the dangerous and history-altering experiments being directed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, who makes an appearance in the book. Enter Steve Malek, who finds himself enmeshed in an intrigue that he doesn't entirely comprehend, but that's okay. Almost everyone else is in the dark as well.
A Death in Pilsen is set in the first year after World War II. I discovered in my microfilm research that following the conflict's end, war brides by the thousands came to the U.S. to be with the American soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen they had become engaged to or wed in Europe or the Pacific.
I had known of the existence of war brides but never realized how many there were until I read these articles in Chicago newspapers in the early months of 1946. I learned both through these stories and through books that life in the States was not always easy or pleasant for these transplanted women from the U.K., France, Belgium, Germany, Japan, and other countries, and my story begins to take shape–with, or course, a murder. And before it's over, legendary and irascible architect Frank Lloyd Wright makes an appearance in the tale.
Like my other Malek stories, A Death in Pilsen takes place in Chicago and its environs. Much of the story centers in the Near West Side neighborhood of Pilsen, which in those years was strongly Bohemian and now is heavily Mexican. But our intrepid reporter also travels to west suburban Naperville to cover one of the most devastating train wrecks in American history, a wreck that happened to take place within the time frame of the book.
In all three novels, I have tried to recreate the city and some of its myriad facets as they existed at the time. I drew in part on my own youthful memories of such long-gone institutions as the Riverview Amusement Park, Marshall Field's expansive and wondrous toy department, and the ubiquitous red (and later, green) streetcars that ran on almost every major thoroughfare in those days before almost everyone owned an automobile.
At the end of each novel, I include a paragraph on the historical figures that make an appearance, describing what happened to them throughout the balance of their lives. I also include a bibliography of the books I have read in my research, including biographies of the real people in the stories.
The bibliographies are included for two reasons: To show that I take my historical research seriously and to provide suggested sources for anyone wanting to learn more about the people and events that were depicted in the pages of these books.
For me, history is fascinating, especially Chicago history, and I try to make it fascinating for readers as well. But I also want to tell a good story and weave a good mystery, one that I hope embodies the noir traditions and mood that I enjoy so much in my own reading.
Robert Goldsborough's "Snap" Malek books are published by Echelon Press, LLC.