Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dark Hearts of Chicago, by William Horwood and Helen Rappaport

I find one of the simple pleasures of reading is being able to pick up a large book and, with some time and patience, finishing it.  There’s a sense of accomplishment that goes along with finishing a 500 pager that I’ve always enjoyed.  My latest read, Dark Hearts of Chicago, started off like that – one of the reasons I chose it was because it looks like a great big brick of a book.  It took me most of a week to get through, but there is no denying that I enjoyed it – both for the sense of accomplishment, and the plot.

Dark Hearts, written by novelist William Horwood and historian Helen Rappaport, is set in Chicago in the closing days of the World’s Fair of 1893.  The story truly begins with Anna, a young girl visiting from New York who goes missing and is reported dead several weeks later after an accident.  In reality, Anna has mysteriously turned up half-dead and without memory in Bubbly Creek, a common dumping place for murder victims.  She is taken to Dunning, Chicago’s mental institution where she is victimized in various ways by the staff there.  Realizing she is pregnant, Anna flees the place and tries to remain one step ahead of the people trying to catch her as she recovers her memory.  Meanwhile, her loving father, morose over loosing his last surviving child, has turned to the World newspaper in New York asking that others be warned of the dangers of Chicago.  That’s where Emily Strauss comes in; intrepid beat reporter who’s between jobs, Emily bluffs her way into Mr. Pulitzer’s presence to ask for a job.  He informs her that, if she can file a story on Anna the day before the end of the World’s Fair, he’ll put her on staff.  Off goes Emily to discover what happened to Anna, and the countless other women that have gone missing over the span of the Fair, and what she finds is a world of corruption, degradation, and human depravity.  Fighting a deadline, and powerful forces within the city that she doesn’t understand, Emily chases down every last lead in an effort to file her story.  Kindda’ wish I would tell you if she makes it, don’t you?  Well, I won’t.  Read the book.

There are more good things than bad that I want to say about this book.  The first is about the writing device most commonly used, and that’s the sense of smell.  It’s an odd device to find an author using, and it’s even odder for an author (or authors, in this case) to use it well; scent is hard to describe and can easily be lost between the reality the author is trying to build and the page.  But, in the same manner that Perfume by Patrick Suskind leaves you convinced you can pick up certain notes in the air, Horwood and Rappaport are able to paint you a picture of Chicago in the 1890s based almost solely on smell.  And it’s not a pretty smell.  Kudos to the authors for this feat – the use of the scent devise is strung throughout the entire work and never fails or comes up short.  It’s an interesting dynamic for the reader.

The other major point I wanted to touch on was the historical research that went into the work.  As I’ve mentioned before, it can be hard to find works of historical fiction these days that aren’t Tutor- or Medieval-based, so when you find one that isn’t, it’s interesting to compare the level of research that went into it.  Now, I’m no expert on anything as late as the World’s Fair, nor as far West as the Americas, but as a historian, it’s easy to spot when the basis is solid, and it definitely is in Dark Hearts.  There is a wide variety of worlds that the plot takes the reader through – business, newspaper, politics, female, institutional, and under – and every last one of them is complete and without holes.  Another kudos to the authors for so perfectly nailing the feel and reality of those ephemeral locations.  

Cap the strength of the plot, writing style, and realism of the work off with solid characters, and you’ve got me.  Emily Strauss is a no-nonsense, smart and forward-thinking kind of woman who won’t take no for an answer.  Her drive to get her story in on time, while selfish at times, leads to great things.  Anna, the poor, abused immigrant girl has to be the strongest ‘person’ ever.  I know she’s a fictional character, but her fortitude and drive are written in such a way that they never seem contrived, but rather extremely genuine.  The secondary characters are just as interesting, be they on the side of good or evil.  (There was one miss-step, however, and that was the introduction of an Asian gentleman who taught Emily self-defense for all of two minutes.  His appearance in the book felt shoe-horned in, and he [and all his lessons] disappeared as quickly as he appeared.  But still, one mistake in 500 pages.  I’ll live.)

Of course, the first thing I did upon finishing the book was look for the next in the series.  In the closing chapter of the book, reference is made to the fact that Emily comes across many of the secondary characters in her future adventures.  This book was published in 2007, and there has yet to be follow-up.  Between 2007 and the present, Horwood has written other works, so it appears as if he’s done with this train of thought.  And that’s a shame.  I might, however, look into his other historical works.  Rappaport continues to write, but in the non-fiction field.  Her areas of interest are Russian, Victorian, and woman’s history.  It’s a disappointment to know that such a strong collaboration has fallen apart.  But, that being said, Dark Hearts of Chicago stands as a fabulous read, and I highly recommend it.

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