“City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago” by Gary Krist and “Detroit: A Biography” by Scott Martelle

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.

(Chicago Review Press/ Chicago Review Press ) - ’Detroit: A Biography’ by Scott Martelle
  • (Chicago Review Press/ Chicago Review Press ) - ’Detroit: A Biography’ by Scott Martelle
  • (Crown/ ) - ’City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago’ by Gary Krist

(Chicago Review Press/ Chicago Review Press ) - ’Detroit: A Biography’ by Scott Martelle

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”).

Krist shows an admirable ability to interweave so many threads while breathing life into a host of supporting characters, including black activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett and the Thompson-opposed owner-publishers of the Chicago Daily News and Chicago Tribune. The narrative develops inexorable momentum as the mob violence, the impending transit shutdown and the mayor’s abdication of duties inflict terrifying chaos on the city. The author is less successful whipping up interest in a wan romantic subplot involving a young woman carrying on a secret engagement with an unrefined soldier who shares her Jewish background but dabbles in Christian Science.

The book also doesn’t quite make the case that this series of unfortunate events “gave birth to modern Chicago.” The nature of racism didn’t really change, nor did Big Bill Thompson’s brand of machine politics. For him the summer of 1919 was a temporary setback, his biggest accomplishment being the City Council’s passage of key elements of the so-called Plan of Chicago on the same day as the Wingfoot Express disaster. But that urban makeover, conceived years earlier by architect Daniel Burnham (a key figure in Erik Larson’s more sprawling “The Devil in the White City”), couldn’t be considered a product of 1919, and, anyway, it’s far from the main thrust of “City of Scoundrels.”

Well, let’s not judge a book by its subtitle. As a page-turner that offers resonant insights into the inflammatory political and racial dynamics of an earlier time, “City of Scoundrels” works just fine.

Speaking of subtitles, the one for “Detroit: A Biography” is problematic as well. I admit to being someone who gets bugged when filmmakers tout their location work by gushing, “The city essentially became a character.” Well, no, it became a setting, as it’s supposed to do. Likewise, if Martelle’s history purports to be a biography — as opposed to, say, a history or survey — then the northern Midwestern city he’s portraying better be quite a compelling figure.

As it turns out, this Detroit is one depressed fellow. Martelle begins his narrative with the French and then British settling this land along the Detroit River (and driving out the Native Americans) before the frontier town grows into a major port city and, eventually, home of the U.S. auto industry. The city is beset by problems that, Martelle points out during his decade-by-decade overview, it never shakes, particularly racism and the short-sightedness of tying its fortunes to a single industry that’s especially vulnerable to economic downturns.

In his preface Martelle notes that he chose to bypass Detroit’s music and sports history. If you were reading the biography of an actual person who happened to create something as staggeringly influential, popular and enjoyable (and relevant to race relations) as Motown, you’d expect that (and the many other contributions to the music and arts worlds) to be covered. Granted, Martelle had to focus his narrative if he wasn’t going to deliver an encyclopedic tome, but ignoring a city’s cultural life is like diagnosing a patient without locating a pulse.

Apart from some short, newspaper-feature-like portraits of “Detroiters,” the book is driven not by flesh-and-blood characters but by a heavy accumulation of statistics illustrating job losses, car-manufacturing drop-offs and white flight to the suburbs. As a protagonist, Detroit has no arc; the narrative is a grim, slow descent, with the author ultimately suggesting ways the city might survive even as his book can’t possibly keep up with the current post-bailout developments.

So it is that in breezing through history, “Detroit” bogs down while “City of Scoundrels,” which takes its time, hits with the force of Lake Michigan’s winds.


Mark Caro is the author of “The Foie Gras Wars” and a Chicago Tribune culture reporter.


The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago

By Gary Krist

Crown. 347 pp. $26


A Biography

By Scott Martelle

Chicago Review. 288 pp. $24.95

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