Saturday, July 5, 2008

Yeah, well, you're not from Chicago

One of my favorite scenes from Brian DePalma's The Untouchables takes place mid-way through the movie. With help from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Untouchables intercept a Capone booze shipment at the border and capture one of Big Al's top boys. When the gangster refuses to talk, Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) punches him in the face, and then completes the scare campaign by grabbing the corpse of a lesser hood and blowing its head off... without bothering to reassure their prisoner that life was extinct first. The manacled hoodlum begins talking the moment he stops pissing himself, but for the commanding officer of the RCMP, the ends don't justify the means. "I do not approve of your methods!" he snaps, to which Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) coolly replies, "Yeah, well, you're not from Chicago."

It's not so entertaining when you hear the same phrase employed in reference to you. One anonymous reviewer didn't exactly slam Guns and Roses, but he did complain about "authors from Iowa and Canada writing about Chicago." (The Iowa author he was referring to is Rick Mattix, who covered Chicago crimes and criminals extensively in The Complete Public Enemy Almanac.) At my request, Amazon pulled the review, and I later learned that the defensive Chicagoan was a frustrated author whose own manuscript about the Windy City mob had been rejected so often that he resorted to self-publication.

Most people are enlightened enough to appreciate a well-written, solidly researched work regardless of the author's origins. Harold Schechter and Ann Rule have written eye-opening and perceptive books about the world's worst serial killers, but no one accuses them of being unfit to deal with the subject matter because bodies aren't buried in their basements. Unfortunately, there exists a minority who think that if your birth certificate doesn't say 'Chicago' on it or you only live there during research trips, your attempts to write about events in the city's history are akin to what one well-meaning Chicagoan called, "a Norwegian trying to write an Italian cookbook."

I don't dispute that for some books, appropriate credentials are crucial. I wouldn't buy a medical textbook unless the author's name ended in 'M.D.' I'll even allow that living in Chicago is a definite asset when you're writing about the city's current events, as these issues impact your own life and give you a perspective that someone in Hayden, Idaho could never have on the same topic. But when the subject matter involves history, all you really need is strong research skills and the ability to ask questions when you don't know something.

During my last visit to Chicago, I went to Holy Name Cathedral to take some pictures. For me, this beautiful church has special significance because the parking lot across the street is the former site of Dean O'Banion's flower shop, where he was murdered in 1924. Two years later his successor, Hymie Weiss, died in the cathedral's shadow when bullets from a machine gun nest ripped his body apart.

While I was angling the camera, a middle-aged gentleman paused to watch. After I snapped the photo, he approached and commented, "Holy Name is a lovely church. Are you taking pictures for a magazine?"

"No, for myself. I did mention Holy Name in two books that I wrote, though."

When he pressed for details, I told him about the O'Banion and Weiss murders. He kept punctuating my speech with "You're kidding!" and "I never knew that!"

"Are you from Chicago?" I asked.

"Yes- born here and lived here all my life. I also go to Holy Name every Sunday. Never knew about this gangster connection before though."

As I watched him continue up State Street, I remembered another line from The Untouchables. When Sean Connery questions a police recruit about why he wants to be a cop, the young man looks confused and then mumbles something about "wanting to help the force." After the interview is concluded, Connery mutters, "There goes the next chief of police." Gazing at the amiable stranger's back, I thought, "God help me if he decides to write a book. He doesn't know much about the city's history, but at least he's from Chicago."

For some, that's all that seems to matter.

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