My first two thrillers are now under contract with Exhibit A. Both are set in Chicago and both heavily influenced by the city’s history of corruption. To mark the occassion, I thought I’d tell a little Chicago tale.
My grandfather, Bartholomew “Bat” O’Shea, was typical of Chicago. He got here fresh off the boat from the Auld Sod in 1917, shunted off alone to the New World by his parents because they were afraid the British were going to draft him up and pack him off to be slaughtered in the trenches of WWI.
So what does the lad do pretty much as soon as he gets here? Signs up to join Uncle Sam and General Black Jack Pershing, joins up with the U.S. Expeditionary Force heading for those same trenches because that’s the quickest way to get his citizenship. Fortunately for Bat, and for me, I guess, he got to France just in time for the armistice, so, aside from a few nights in the rear listening to the artillery, he had an uneventful war.
Then he came back to Chicago as a freshly minted U.S. citizen, put in a year or two down in the stockyards where every cow and pig west of the Mississippi came to die, and then did what any self-respecting Irishman in Chicago did, he became a cop. Just in time for the Capone years.
There’s a story about Grandpa Bat’s cop days that I’ve heard from my father that speaks volumes about Chicago. It’s 1960, the twilight of Grandpa Bat’s career. He’s long past the need for excitement or any ideas of advancement. He’s just looking for some safe, easy duty to mark time until retirement. And he gets the perfect beat. He’s assigned to Lorreto Hospital and the immediately surrounding environs on Chicago’s west side, in the Austin district. The area has gone downhill considerably since then, starting in the late 1960s, but in 1960 it was a solid blue color neighborhood, and Grandpa Bat only lived a few blocks from his beat. He could walk to work in the morning, walk home at night, and spend his days walking the nuns who ran the place around the hospital grounds, back and forth to the convent, and sort out the occasional bit of trouble that breaks out at any hospital, usually in the ER. Nothing real serious, nothing real dangerous.
Then some kid with some juice graduates from the academy, gets assigned to Austin, and figures that, if a guy with Bat’s seniority is hanging on to this beat, then there has to be some money floating around. Because that’s often how it was in those days. Cops didn’t get paid a whole hell of a lot, and everybody pretty much looked the other way if they found a way to pick up a buck or two on their beat. And the more senior you were, the more pull you had in your beat assignment.
Grandpa wasn’t after any graft, though. Never had been. He was just looking for an easy spot to mark squares off the calendar. But this kid, he didn’t believe that. And he had some pull, had a Chinaman down at City Hall (that’s what you called your City contact, the one who could pull some strings for you – your Chinaman). So the kid puts in a call, Bat gets yanked off his beat, and the kid shows up, starts nosing around for the money.
Thing is there wasn’t any. And the harder the kid pushed, the more he pissed off the good Sisters who ran the place. One of whom was related to the Mayor. The Mayor was her Chinaman. So she calls up City Hall and wants to know why this young punk is putting the squeeze on her, and can’t she please have that nice Bat O’Shea back. The Sister’s Chinaman had way more clout than the punk’s Chinaman, so a day later the punk is out, Bat is back, and that’s where he spent the rest of his career, walking the sisters around Loretto Hospital.