Partners in Crime: Chicago’s gritty South Side is home to the writers and characters of crime fiction

Illustration by Sam Bowman

Illustration by Sam Bowman

The dirtied brick of the abandoned steel mills on Chicago’s South Side mark years past. Long rows of windows, which once filled large, open rooms with light, are now boarded and permanently shut. At night the alleyways, littered with trash, are pitch black, hiding loiterers who lurk in the shadows. These steel mills stand throughout the South Side, and for most Chicagoans, the abandoned lots are forbidden territory. But for Chicago crime-writers, these buildings are where their greatest stories begin.

“There are a lot of different ways to write crime fiction,” explains Sara Paretsky, a nearly twenty-five-year veteran of the Chicago crime novel genre. “This city is so gritty and corrupt–it belongs to the hardboiled crime tradition.” Pioneered in the 1920s by Caroll John Daly and popularized by writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, hardboiled crime fiction birthed the tough detective who delves into the world of drugs, sex, and violence in order to solve his case. “When I first came here, in 1966, the city was so unbelievably corrupt,” says Paretsky of Chicago. “It was an era of mind-numbing corruption. The corruption in the police force in particular was so extreme that I could not imagine writing from a policeman’s perspective, and so V.I. Warshawski was born.” Warshawski is the hard-talking, no-nonsense detective and heroine of Paretsky’s thirteen novel series. In her newest novel, “Hardball,” Paretsky goes back to the summer between her sophomore and junior year of college when she first arrived in Chicago as a church volunteer. “It was the height of great turmoil around the civil rights movement,” Paretsky explains. “There was a push towards open housing in the city. The city was very racially segregated and racial hostility was extraordinary.” Paretsky was placed at 70th and Damen, in a neighborhood occupied primarily by Catholic Lithuanian, Polish, and German families. “I was part of a group trying to work with kids and give them a different vision. It was an incredibly intense time to be in the city. We weren’t far from Marquette Park, where terrible race riots took place.” “Hardball” is the tale of a fictitious murder that takes place in the park that summer, and the murder weapon is a baseball, a play off of Chicago’s famous hardball pitch. “It was a summer that changed my life. It brought me to Chicago, and got me so involved in every aspect of the city that I could not imagine going anywhere else after that.” Martin Luther King was assaulted at the race riots in Marquette Park that summer. The riots were considered as violent and destructive as those in Little Rock. Paretsky continues, “Being there changed how I wanted to write. It made me want to tell stories that were grounded in the community. That summer changed me as a writer, it changed me as a person, it changed where I lived, it changed everything about me.” Paretsky moved to Chicago and has never left.

Over the years, the Chicago landscape has changed drastically for both Paretsky and her fictional characters. “When I first moved here, the night sky was yellow because of all the sulfur being burned. They said that breathing Chicago air was like smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day because of all the pollutants coming from the steel mills. When I shut my eyes, I see the city at night,” Paretsky reflects. “I see the methane flares, those lights that just go on for miles and miles.” Today, the red flares no longer spike the mustard sky, and the South Side is not an industrial center. Now, although the South Side is still a place where different cultures intersect, it is primarily characterized by the street-corner police poles whose blue lights portend danger.

It is not only the South Side city landscape that has changed, but the landscape for women as well. “When I started, there weren’t characters like V.I. Warshawski. I wanted to change the way women were depicted in crime novels. Women in fiction were known for using their bodies to make good boys do bad things. I wanted to create a woman who could solve her own problems, who had a sex life, a woman who turned the tables on the negative images projected onto them.” Warshawski has become one of fiction’s most notoriously strong female characters, and it is her Chicago neighborhood that fostered her. “I wanted someone who came out of the South Side,” Paretsky explains. “V.I. grew up when the steel mills really were active. There was always a new generation of immigrants looking for jobs. It was a school for fighting.” Over the years, Paretsky set a new precedent for female heroines, opening the doors for a slew of female crime writers and detective characters. In 1986, Paretsky founded Sisters in Crime, an organization whose mission is to promote the professional development and advancement of women crime writers. Now, the organization has expanded to over 3,600 members around the globe.

Libby Fischer Hellmann is another Chicago-based crime fiction writer, whose heroine detectives Ellie Foreman and P.I. Georgia Davis solve cases set in Chicago neighborhoods. “Chicago is an amazing city,” says Hellmann. “The South Side, in particular, is an integral part of the city. It’s vibrant and diverse, and it means something different to everyone. That’s an amazing gift for a writer.” Like Paretsky, Hellmann is an advocate of female heroines, as well as the current president of Sisters in Crime. Hellmann wears a second hat, however. Three years ago, Hellmann founded the blog The Outfit Collective. The Collective, as it is nicknamed, was one of the first geographically-focused blogs. Hellmann started the Collective as a way for writers to stay connected to their readers between publication dates. “I wanted the blog to be something different than most crime blogs,” Hellmann says, “and making Chicago the center of the blog was a great way to do that.” Over the past three years, the blog has evolved and expanded from its original seven members to ten, each of whom is assigned a day of the week to write about his or her topic of choice. Many of the contributors are former lawyers, insurance agents, and private investigators. Entrance themes range from discussing Chicago politics to thoughts on Mother’s Day to critiques of novels like “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” While the backgrounds of the writers vary as much as the topics, a love for Chicago is tangible in each post.

But while the blog addresses many issues common to both Chicago neighborhoods and the world of crime writing, one issue, according to Paretsky, that it does not discuss is the role of women in these two worlds. “It’s a very masculine blog in a particular kind of way,” Paretsky says. “There’s been a kind of beseeching. I see that it doesn’t see the female perspective as something that matters–it’s all beer-drinking, back-slapping kind of behavior. It’s a very odd kind of collective.” Although Paretsky writes for the Collective, she also writes on her own, addressing women’s issues. “When I’ve written about women’s issues on the [Collective] blog, people have said that I’m a one-trick pony.” Paretsky has now started her own blog, for which she is the sole contributor.

However, Paretsky’s concerns reach far beyond these blogs. “I’m getting a wee bit discouraged,” Paretsky says with a sigh. “Some things really just haven’t changed enough. A lot of social life has changed, but at a fundamental level, women are still devalued. ‘Hardball’ is my attempt to come full circle. I’m trying to tell a story that questions what it means when we see women existing in the body and not the mind.” The role of women is not the only disappointment for Paretsky–so, too, is the South Side. “I do love this city. But I get really discouraged. Living on the South Side, it often feels you’re in the middle of a slum.” The worlds of fiction and reality have intersected on the pages of Paretsky’s novels for nearly 20 years. But like the unchanged and timeworn factories that dot Chicago’s South Side horizon, the role of women in the world of crime fiction seems to simply mold rather than mold change.

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