My summer vacation reading is kicking off nicely even though I am mired down in a few books (Game of Thrones primarily). Coming back from a conference in Chicago I finished City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster that Gave Birth to Modern Chicago by Gary Krist. I found it at a small bookstore on the north side called after-words, which is worth checking out.
City of Scoundrels is a chronicle of the summer of July 1919 in Chicago when a series of events almost destroyed the city and exposed serious problems in the city government. The book kicks off with the story of the Wingfoot Express, an experimental blimp that caught fire as it was flying over the Loop (one of the busiest districts) and crashed into a downtown bank skylight. As you can imagine, the event did not end well. From the crash to the case of a missing girl to a transit strike to the culmination of the summer with large and violent race riots, this was basically the summer that Chicago burned (again). Leading the city at the time was Big Bill Thompson, a complex figure as mayor who both helped to create the modern architectural marvel that is Chicago and stood by while the riots happened just to score political points.
A review on the book describes it as deftly weaving together separate events and the description is pretty apt. While the murder case seems a bit disconnected from the primary events, Krist does a great job in keeping the narrative moving and grabbing the reader’s attention. I read the book in two days, which is remarkable for me, mostly because the narrative is so good.
The only criticism I have is that Krist tries to make the case that Thompson helped to build the modern Chicago, but never does so adequately. While Thompson may have had the vision, Krist is pretty vague on how that vision becomes a reality (beyond Thompson filling the political seats in the city with his supporters). It would be interesting to read this with The Third Coast to see how the pieces fit together.
Two of my favorite genres are disaster chronicles and political history (are those real genres?), so this was a nice combination of both. The story is well-written and engaging. Great book to read if you plan to visit the windy city.