Choosing the right time frame is a key decision for any storyteller. Can you reveal more about a subject by covering exhaustive chronological ground or homing in on a tightly compressed period? Do you pull back for a wide shot and let events rush by as if in a montage, or do you push in for the close-up and have developments unfold in something closer to real time?
Journalists Gary Krist and Scott Martelle offer contrasting answers to these questions with their relatively compact historical books about major Midwestern cities. As the subtitle indicates, Krist’s “City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago” is a crisply focused affair that relates how a blimp disaster, a transit strike and a race riot made for a particularly hellish July of 1919. Martell’s “Detroit” takes a more panoramic approach, spanning this northern city’s 300-plus years of troubled history in fewer than 260 pages of text. Different cities, different authors, different stories to tell, though one approach generates far more tension than the other.
In Krist’s doozy of an opening set piece, various Chicagoans set out for work on a day in which a Goodyear dirigible, called the Wingfoot Express, makes its maiden series of voyages around the city, including a low flight over the Loop’s business district. The first man we meet, Carl Otto, has decided to return to his bank job a day early after recovering from Spanish influenza, and anyone schooled in foreshadowing mentally cues up the ominous music. Yet the way the disaster plays out, with Krist deftly cutting among multiple perspectives and eyewitness accounts that he has unearthed, is so spectacular and vivid that you’re picturing how James Cameron might film it all before you’ve reached page 20.
Krist goes on to note that worse events were to follow, and he’s right. But the subsequent explosions are trailed by longer fuses, as politicians absorbed in their own machinations fail to mind the sparks within the citizenry. The dominant figure here is William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, the outsized Chicago mayor who is more skilled in rewarding friends, punishing enemies and sweet-talking the public than he is in running a big city. When former ally Illinois Gov. Frank Lowden crosses him, Thompson becomes determined to torpedo his fellow Republican’s presidential aspirations, even if that means failing to ask the governor to call in the National Guard when Chicago’s police obviously are overmatched by the spread of rioting.
In a direct, unflashy writing style, the author clearly delineates the many other forces at work: labor unrest among transit workers whose work-week and salary demands are incompatible with the mayor’s never-ending pledge to keep streetcar fare at a nickel; rising racial tensions as blacks, many having surged into the city during the Great Migration, move into white-dominated neighborhoods where teen “athletic clubs” violently resist integration; the search for a missing 6-year-old girl that prompts officials to call for the roundup of all “morons” (that is, “mentally deficient deviants”).