SOMETIME IN NOVEMBER, a tornado will descend on Chicago. This unseasonable storm will cause havoc and destruction all over town, but it will have its most devastating impact on City Hall. With the mayor incapacitated by a stroke, the ruthlessly opportunistic vice mayor will use the disaster to have herself declared mayor. "Herself," in fact, might well be the alternate title for the novel incorporating this plot. It was written by Eugene Kennedy, who, a few years ago, published a biography of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley called Himself!
Kennedy also published a magazine profile of the present Chicago mayor, Jane Byrne, and, obviously, the fictional mayor in his forthcoming novel -- entitled The Queen Bee -- has a more than passing resemblance to Byrne, who was also swept into office by a freak storm (a blizzard in her case, rather than a tornado).
When The Queen Bee is published in November, Kennedy won't be surprised -- or disappointed -- if it has cataclysmic repercussions in both political and literary precincts. He reports that his editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Onassis, asked him after reading the manuscript: "Do you think you're going to have to leave Chicago?" Says Kennedy of what may be the offending book: "I know there'll be a reaction. I hope it's not a violent one."
At the same time, Kennedy, an ex-priest and psychologist as well as a novelist (Father's Day), insists that his Mayor Ann Marie O'Brien is no mere clone of Jane Byrne, and that those who pick up The Queen Bee expecting the backstairs lowdown on City Hall are going to be disappointed. "It's a cheap and exploitive thing," he says, "to take a living person and copy what he or she has done." His novel is not a pastiche or a roman Ma clef, he maintains, but a "reinvention, using similar characters and dynamics, that attempts to create a 'true impression' of political and metropolitan life in Chicago." Nevertheless, says Kennedy, "You can only invent so many things before life starts imitating art." Which means that Ann Marie O'Brien may turn out to have more in common with Jane Byrne than Kennedy intended.
If nothing else, Kennedy's novel should help set the stage for the expected confrontation between Byrne (or Mayor Bossy, as she's unaffectionately called by columnist Mike Royko) and State's Attorney Richard ("Richie") Daley, son of the late mayor, in February's Democratic mayoral primary. Kennedy leaves little doubt whether he thinks Jane Byrne will win a second term: "Jane Byrne is an accidental mayor who has had enormous difficulty keeping her problems in balance. She's a genius at using the media, but she's shallow and bored by day-to-day government; and she's unintentionally paving the way for the return of the Daley family to power."
In a city noted for its industry, Kennedy is one of the more industrious authors, with between 35 and 40 books (even he can't keep track) in his bibliography, many of them religious and psychological works. In the numbers game, that probably makes him second only to Andrew Greeley, the renegade priest, sociologist, and author or more than 80 titles, including several iniquitous novels, most recently Thy Brother's Wife.
Within a few years, however, both authors may be challenged by Jay Robert Nash. Though he has so far written only about 20 books, Nash has had his assembly line operating in high gear, mostly producing such encylopedic celebrations of crime and gore as Bloodletters and Badmen, Hustlers and Conmen, and Among the Missing. This spring alone, Nash -- who likes to cultivate a Cagneyesque image of a writer as quick with his fists as his typing fingers -- published three books: a crime novel, The Dark Fountain; an anthology of eccentrics called Zanies; and The Innovators, sketches of writers, artists and con men he has known. In this last collection, Nash -- who once threatened to slug Tribune columnist Clarence Petersen if he ever reviewed a book of his -- managed to settle old scores with James T. Farrell and Nelson Algren. Farrell, as Nash portrayed him, was a miser and misanthrope. And he offers a revisionist version of his legendary barroom brawl with Algren. According to Nash, Algren swung at him first, but missed and drove his fist into a brick wall, and that became the basis for Algren's claim that he was "bushwacked" by the younger Nash.
In view of his extensive record in the field of criminal literature, Nash might well be the ex officio ringleader of a Chicago renaissance, one recycled from the '30s and '40s when mystery writers like Jonathan Latimer and Harry Stephen Keeler were reinforcing the city's image as an abattoir, unlike any that Carl Sandburg ever lyricized over. Within the last year or so, novels in the crime/suspense/espionage genre have been written by Arthur Maling, Stuart Kaminsky, Donald Zochert, Jim McCormick, William Brashler, Laurence Gonzales, Sara Paretsky, Richard Himmel, Bill Granger, and Michael Kilian, among others.
The official dean of this crime school is probably Stuart Kaminsky, by virtue of both his literary and academic credentials: He is not only a detective novelist (Never Cross a Vampire) and president of the Midwest Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, but a professor at Northwestern University, a show business biographer, and a film and pulp fiction historian. It was Kaminsky, through a writing course he teaches at Northwestern, who helped Sara Paretsky write and publish her first novel, Indemnity Only, which features a female private eye. Paretsky, who comes from Kansas City and works in public relations for an insurance company, says she was inspired to write the book by her first look at Chicago: "It was like a vision of hell, with factories belching fire and smoke." The Chicago setting made it difficult to get the novel published -- it was rejected by 11 publishers before Dial accepted -- and caused a few editorial problems too, Paretsky says: "In the opening paragraph of the book, I described the smell of dead alewives along Lake Michigan, and the editor wanted me to take it out. He thought it was offensive. But that's just Chicago in the summertime."
For versatility and prolificacy, the Chicago writer who threatens to eclipse all the competition is Bill Granger. Since his fiction debut three years ago with The November Man, a paperback thriller with a secret agent named Devereaux, Granger has averaged more than a book a year. These include Sweeps, an Edgar Award-winning paperback mystery, Fighting Jane, a Byrne biography written with his wife, Lori, and two more Deveraux novels, in hardcover, the latest of which, The Shattered Eye, is due out in October. A thrice-weekly columnist for the Tribune, Granger published a novel last spring, Time for Frankie Coolin, under the pseudonym Bill Griffith, presumably because he didn't want to spread himself too thin. Coolin was not a crime novel but an affecting story of a "working-class stiff" in trouble with the law; it was, in some ways, a throwback to another Chicago tradition, the urban poetry of Sandburg and Algren (with an obvious debt to the dialogues of George V. Higgins). One critic, in fact, scolded Granger, saying he should have published Coolin under his own name and saved the pseudonyms for his thrillers.
Amid all this skulduggery, it seemed fitting that Academy Chicago -- a small publisher known (if at all) for reprints of George Sand and Winifred Holtby as well as for such quaint arcana as Diary of a Provincial Lady -- scored its biggest success with a mystery. The book was Murder at the Red October, by Anthony Olcott, a onetime Russian exchange student who used his knowledge of Moscow's back alleys for a story about a seedy hotel detective engaged in a battle of wits with the KGB. Even though the book was published just after Gorky Park seemed to have cornered the market for Russian mysteries, the timing worked to Academy Chicago's advantage. Ma and Pa publishers Anita and Jordan Miller were able to capitalize on Gorky Park's popularity by promoting Red October as a more authentic thriller. Several critics agreed, which helped boost hardcover sales to 9,000 copies -- "quite a bit for any publisher," says Jordan Miller, "no matter what anybody tells you." At last report, there were 250,000 copies of the Bantam paperback in print, and Olcott was working on a sequel, Mayday in Magadan (though the success of Red October may squeeze little Academy Chicago out of the bidding).
While it's hardly in a league with such New York giants as Doubleday or Simon and Schuster, the University of Chicago Press is not what you'd call a small publisher. Indeed, it calls itself the country's largest academic publisher, and it could never be faulted for thinking small, or acting precipitously. A year ago, for instance, the press brought out The Lisle Letters -- a project that originated in 1932. The six-volume work contains nearly 2,000 letters written between 1533 and 1540 by a Tudor lord and lady, their friends and relatives. To date, the press has sold all but a few hundred sets of its 2,500 first edition, a figure that Morris Philipson, its director, calls "terrific, absolutely fantastic," considering that the price of a set -- $300 -- makes it a "gilt-edged investment." The first printing will be the last, Philipson says, because "we could never afford to bring out a second edition." When the first printing does sell out, however, the press will publish a one-volume selection of the letters, which Philipson says "we hope to keep in print forever."
If Philipson and his university press occupy an exalted upper rung in Chicago literary society, the other extreme is represented by Robert M. Haft and his Crown discount bookstores. As he did in Washington and Los Angeles, Haft blitzed the Chicago market with Crown outlets. Carl Kroch, the venerable high lama of Chicago booksellers, was said to be so disheartened by Crown's high-pitched, hard-sell tactics that he was putting his 18 Kroch's & Brentano's stores up for sale. That turned out to be a rumor (spread by a competitor), but Kroch retreats behind a stonewall of "no comments" whenever he is asked about the effects of Crown on his business. By all indications, sales were lagging not only at Kroch's but at B. Dalton and most other Chicago bookstores, large and small, chain and independent. Acknowledging that his figures were not keeping pace with inflation, one bookseller said, "We don't feel that Crown is a factor, not so far, but that the economy in general is to blame." So far, there have been several casualties among the smaller stores; and B. Dalton has counterattacked by offering 40 percent discounts on selected bestsellers. What is shaping up, however, is less a price war than a fight to the bloody end. The decisive battle may begin later this year when Crown opens an outlet in the Loop, a block from both the Kroch and Dalton flagships.
Let me close this dispatch on a more sociable note, with news of a party given by art dealer Richard Gray and his wife Mary in their Gold Coast apartment for John Updike after the novelist had won an American Book Award (and every other prize) for Rabbit Is Rich. This was an exclusive affair, with a guest list that included not only such authors as Studs Terkel and Saul Bellow but prominent Chicago figures in art, music, and the theater. But it was not, after all, so exclusive that the Grays neglected to invite a columnist for Chicago Magazine, who provided readers with vital information about the catered menu (roast duck and peaches) and Updike's $700 gray pinstripe suit, which "made him look less pot-bellied and much nattier than the other literary lions." From another unimpeachable source, I can also report, exclusively, that: (1) Bellow was grumpy because his novel, The Dean's December had fallen off the bestseller list for the first time since its January publication; (2) Public Radio talk-show host Robert Cromie compared golf notes with Updike; and (3) the hostess was quite flustered about having so many illustrious guests in her parlor -- "If I'd known this was going to be the literary party of the season," she told one, "I would have been afraid to have it."