Scene of the Crime, new post: Chicago in the Blood

“An understated crime fiction gem . . . a wildly thought-provoking whodunit,” is how the Chicago Tribune termed Barbara Fister’s first Chicago-based crime novel featuring ex-cop and current PI Anni Koskinen. That work, In the Wind, finds Anni herself the object of an FBI investigation when she unwittingly helps a fugitive escape.

Fister locates her work in Chicago and takes the challenge of writing that oft-used locale seriously, as evidenced by a Publishers Weekly contributor who wrote of In the Wind: “The Windy City already has plenty of fictional PIs, but they’ll have to make room for the gutsy and appealing Anni Koskinen.”

Fister, dubbed the “heir apparent to Sara Paretsky,” followed up this successful first Anni Koskinen mystery with a second, Through the Cracks, out this May. Here the indefatigable PI takes on a serial rapist in a story that Publishers Weekly called a “gritty mystery [that is] well above the norm.” The same
reviewer thought that Anni Koskinen’s “empathy with both cops and
victims as well as her fierce, brittle independence make her easy to
root for.”

Barbara, thanks for taking the time to drop by Scene of the Crime and sharing some thought on location in your fiction.

First, describe your connection to Chicago. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site,
do you make frequent trips there?

Chicago was the big city when I was growing up two hours north in Wisconsin. My parents would take us there to see tall
buildings and visit museums and look at the lights and shop windows on
the Miracle Mile at Christmastime. It wasn’t until much later that I
got to know the real Chicago, the city of nearly 200 neighborhoods, a
city that had built a network of beautiful parks and reversed the flow
of the Chicago River in a spirited engineering feat—and has block after
block on the South and West Sides that look as if they’d been through a
war and haven’t been rebuilt. That’s the mixed-up, complicated city I
came to love. I spent part of a sabbatical there, visit often, and my
son has obligingly moved to the area so now I even have a couch to
sleep on.

What things about Chicago make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?

Though every neighborhood in the city is different, Chicago in aggregate is the quintessential American city: broad-shouldered,
earnest, diverse, troubled. It is divided by race and class and has
always been buffeted and strengthened by waves of immigration. It now
has the second-largest Mexican American population in the US after L.A.
It’s deeply corrupt and has a history of bad race relations, form the
deadly 1919 riots to the mayor’s “shoot to kill” order given during the
riots of 1968, and the virulent hostility of the city council when the
great Harold Washington was elected its first black mayor. But for all
that, it is home to the friendliest people in the world, or at least
that’s been my experience. I suspect some southern hospitality came
packed in the bottom of footlockers during the Great Migration. In Through the Cracks, my narrator Anni Koskinen visits an acquaintance in East Garfield Park, a poor black neighborhood on the West Side.

“There weren’t many businesses in this part of town, at least the kind that were on the tax rolls, but the
streets were always humming with activity. On this early evening, a
cluster of men were gathered around a car with its hood up while a
group of boys hung out nearby, laughing and exchanging rabbit punches.
An ancient man with a porkpie hat squashed on his head was limping from
one person to another asking if anyone could spare some change for the
bus. As I parked and climbed out of my car, a man relaxing on his front
stoop with a can of malt liquor and a cigarette nodded at me. ‘How you
doing today?’ he asked politely.

“An average day in the 11th district would see a dozen arrests for battery, theft, prostitution, and narcotics. It
was a dangerous neighborhood, and most of the residents had difficult,
hardscrabble lives. But in spite of all that, people had small town
manners and were more likely than in North Side neighborhoods to smile
at strangers and say hello.”

That has been my experience in Chicago. Life’s not always easy and the climate can be frigid, but the people are warm.

Did you consciously set out to use Chicago as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or

Setting is important to me as a reader, both as the petri dish for a story and as an influence on the characters. Anni Koskinen,
my narrator, would be a different person if she lived somewhere else.
I’m not sure the Chicago setting has the status of “character” exactly,
but you can’t take the D.C. out of George Pelecanos or the New York out
of Lawrence Block. A long time ago Linton Weeks wrote an essay in the Washington Post complaining
about the “no style style” used in popular thrillers, language that had
no flavor and was interchangeable among authors. I think some books
have a “no setting setting” but I don’t enjoy spending time there.

How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention
to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?

I think I must have some kind of mental GPS implanted in my brain; I never think up a scene without deciding where it is happening.
Because Chicago’s neighborhoods are stamped so distinctively by
ethnicity and income, the precise latitude and longitude where
something happens make all the difference.

How does Anni Koskinen interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic
inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the
setting affect your protagonist?

Anni Koskinen lives in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood that is at a crossroads in many senses of the word. It’s home to Chicago’s
Puerto Rican community, and there are lots of visible signs of Puerto
Rican pride as well as great coffee and guava pastries. It also has
many black and Mexican American residents, which makes for some
complicated boundary disputes when it comes to gang turf. It’s next
door to Ukrainian Village, which still has several Russian Orthodox and
Ukrainian Catholic churches with gleaming onion domes. It’s also ripe
for gentrification, so the turf warfare isn’t just among gangs. Anni
grew up in Chicago and, for a time, on the North Shore. She’s mixed
race and is used to traveling without a passport between classes and
races, which means she feels at home anywhere in the city, but not
necessarily as if she belongs anywhere in particular. For reasons of
geography, she’s more Cubs inclined than Sox, but she’s ecumenical
enough to be happy when the Sox win the pennant.

Has there been any local reaction to your works?

In the Wind got a generous review from Paul Goat Allen in the Chicago Tribune and Sean Chercover, who lives there and writes about the city, seems to
think I got the setting right. Otherwise, I haven’t heard much one way
or the other.

Of the novels you have written set in Chicago, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a
short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your

Across the street from Daley Plaza there’s a landmark building that is typical of Chicago’s contradictions. The oldest
congregation in the city’s history, the United Methodist Church began
construction on their current home in the 1920s, building a monument to
church and commerce that would incorporate a place of worship, office
space and a tiny chapel high above the city. Though this prime real
estate still leases offices, homeless people are welcome to spend time
in the sanctuary, seeking warmth in the winter or cooling off on hot
summer days. Every May an ecumenical service is held there for the
indigent poor buried by the county at Homewood Cemetery south of the
city. Anni describes it:

“It was an annual memorial service, held at the Chicago Temple, that strange neo-Gothic skyscraper in the Loop that combines Methodist
ministry and fifteen floors of office space. A few dozen people would
gather there at the end of May to remember those buried by the county
at public expense. Not that much was expended—embalming performed by
students of mortuary science who needed the practice, a forty-dollar
pine box, and a few square feet of a trench in the Homewood cemetery,
where they were interred, a dozen at a time, as soon as investigators
in the morgue detail were certain no one else would foot the bill.
Fifteen or twenty of the three hundred or so buried by the county each
year didn’t even have a name. My mother was buried there, identified
only by a number until Jim Tilquist helped me track her down. I had
only the vaguest memories of her, and never found out how she died, but
I went to the service every spring, and sometimes took the trip with
her to Homewood in my dreams.”

In Through the Cracks, Anni tries to warn a girl whose sister is missing that the search may not turn out well, and she thinks about her mother and visiting the cemetery for the first time.

“I stared out at the street, thinking about the few memories I had of her: a warm lap, an Indian block-print skirt with a mysterious spicy
scent. A string of blue glass beads that I rolled between my fingers
and held up to the light to see their clear, sapphire glow.

“Much clearer was the memory of the day Jim drove me to the cemetery in a suburb south of the city where we’d learned my mother had been
interred with other indigents in an unmarked grave. I’d bought a bunch
of flowers with my own money. When we drove through the cemetery gate,
my heart lifted to see such a beautiful place, shady and green. Jim
asked for a map at the front office and we drove to the area at the far
end of the cemetery that was labeled ‘Garden of Peace.’ But when we got
there, it wasn’t a garden at all. Weeds grew up through disturbed
earth; rocks and dirt lay in piles. I got out and walked across the
uneven ground, a bitter wind blowing hair in my face as a backhoe
carved a trench near the back fence. I remembered feeling Jim’s hand on
my shoulder, hearing him ask if I was ready to go home, shaking my head
helplessly. I didn’t know where to leave the flowers.”

The site where Cook County buries its poor is a measure of the poverty and neglect that is so common in Chicago; the service at
the Temple is a recognition that at least some feel those buried there
should not be forgotten.

Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your

Since setting is so important to me, I’m sure every writer I love has helped me think about how place influences the reading
experience. And there are so many. I love the work of George Pelecanos,
Denise Mina, Sean Doolittle, Reggie Nadelson, and Richard Price, all
masters of setting. I’m fascinated by the Scandinavian writers who
write so realistically about the impact of crime and the things we’re
all capable of: Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Fossum, Jo Nesbo, and Johan
Theorin, among others. I also love books by Sam Reaves and Sean
Chercover (who really get Chicago), Ed Dee (who gets New York), Martin
Cruz Smith (who gets Russia), John McFetridge (who owns Toronto), Deon
Meyer (who speaks fluent South African in more than one language),
Timothy Hallinan and John Burdett (who make Bangkok so real), Adrian
Hyland and Peter Temple (whose Strine is so expressive), David Corbett
(who won’t let us forget what we did to El Salvador and what we keep
doing to our immigrants). Of the old school there’s Elmore Leonard,
Ed McBain, the late Robert B. Parker, Sjowall and Wahloo … I could go
on and on. Some people think book publishing is broken, but one thing
for sure: storytelling isn’t. I will never run out of great things to
read or places to visit.

Barbara, thanks for a fascinating discussion and for bringing Chicago to life for us.

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