“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 thoughts 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.
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 stories?
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.
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 novels?
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.”
“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 novels?
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.
Visit Barbara at her home page.