Alcohol! Guns! Chicago!
Portland author’s The Girls of Murder City tells the truthy tales behind the musical
By Suzi Steffen
The man peered into the darkness. A light beamed from his desk. Writing at night was the only way to tell the tale. A tale of lust, of sable coats, of adulterous women, guns and illicit gin. Was that a noise? He jumped. He whirled …
… Only to find that his smartphone was pinging him: His agent had direct-messaged him on Twitter.
All right, I made that up about Portland author @douglasmperry (er, Douglas Perry, for those of you not in the Twitterverse) — though I’d bet he did write some of The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers who Inspired Chicago (Viking; $25.95), his new book, late at night. Who wouldn’t? Faced with the task of sorting through six (yes, six) Chicago newspapers’ often breathless, deathless and/or purple 1920s prose, Perry usually sorts fact from fiction and lays out the facts in a swiftly moving tale of women in Prohibition-era Chicago.
The book blazes with bright images of Chicago, both working-class apartments and the wealthier areas, as Perry tracks down the background of women like Belva Gaertner (you might know her as Velma Kelly in the musical/movie/play) or Beulah Annan (Roxie Hart), both of whom killed their lovers in 1924. Perry gets inside their heads and tells their stories, the stories of the murders that made them famous.
As readers might assume from the musical, both women used their beauty and celebrity, manipulating readers and the all-male juries, to their advantage, and Perry smartly explains the various legal strategies that affected these two and other women arrested for murder in Cook County. Amusingly, Perry gets caught up in some of the style of the times, and a modern reader might ask for a few less fantastical passages (though he sources them well) about what Annan, Gaertner or Maurine Watkins were thinking during specific scenes.
Watkins, the shy, cute, religious reporter from a small town in Indiana come to the big city to make her mark, turns out to be the star of The Girls of Murder City. She fends off the rough newspapermen of the Tribune, and she even outfoxes the other “lady reporters” (of which there were very, very few) at the paper as they strive to cover high-profile cases of women killing men. The murder rate was climbing, and women were starting to wear flapper dresses and smoke cigarettes — all of which alarmed and titillated the city and the nation. Watkins left the reporter’s life after not too long a time, and she became a playwright with one big success — Chicago.
Tangents about other murders and characters abound in Girls, but who cares? The book’s a romp, an enjoyable read about the seamy tales that held the world’s attention as jazz, guns, post-WWI energy and Prohibition made the U.S. a country riven and riveted by flappers, gangs and murder.
Douglas Perry reads from The Girls of Murder City at 7:30 pm Tuesday, August 17, at Powell’s on Burnside in Portland.