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BOOK REVIEW: ‘City for Ransom’ Captures Bustle, Terror of Chicago during 1893 World’s Fair

Posted by kinchendavid on July 16, 2006

Reviewed By David M. Kinchen

Hinton, WV – Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear…Nope, it’s not “The Lone Ranger” but it’s just as thrilling and horrifying by turns. I’m talking about “City for Ransom” by Robert W. Walker (Avon, 336 pages, $6.99), featuring Chicago Police Inspector Alastair Ransom investigating gruesome murders committed by a person the city’s newspapers have dubbed “The Phantom of the Fair.”

The fair in question is the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 on the south side lakefront of Chicago. Designed under the supervision of great Chicago architect Daniel H. Burnham, the fair featured the world’s first Ferris Wheel and a collection of buildings called collectively “The White City.” Today, the area is the home of beautiful Jackson Park, the Museum of Science and Industry and – a few blocks inland — the neo-Gothic campus of the University of Chicago. The fair was a phenomenal popular success, attracting 27.6 million people – almost half the population of the U.S.—during its May-October 1893 run.

Ransom is a complicated, haunted man, wounded in the Haymarket Riot of 1886 which took the lives of fellow policemen, wielding a massive scrimshaw wolf’s-head cane, blustering his way around the Metropolis of the Prairie. He suffers nightmares over a botched interrogation in the wake of the riot.

Now he’s faced with a mysterious murderer and there’s no shortage of experts offering advice and help, most of which he doesn’t want. He particularly is annoyed, angered even, at the advice proffered by Dr. James Phineas Tewes, an odd little man who welcomes Ransom’s investigation of the third garroting is as many weeks with the statement: “I insist on a scientifically accurate, thorough phrenological diagnosis on the dead boy’s cranium to determine his magnetic levels at the time of his death.”

“Phrenological what?” Is Ransom’s response. Think of the characters in the HBO series “Deadwood” and you’ve got an idea of how Ransom and his friends and antagonists act and talk. Yes, the language in “City for Ransom” is very salty and graphic. I also was reminded of the historical novels of such authors as Caleb Carr (“The Alienist”) and E.L. Doctorow (“The Waterworks”) as I read “City for Ransom.”

Tewes has more than a few secrets of his own – which – spoiler alert – I won’t reveal. His daughter Gabrielle is studying medicine at Northwestern University, despite prejudice against women doctors that borders on the insane. This is the Victorian era, after all, and women can’t vote – except in a few Western states like Wyoming and Colorado. Gabby is an ardent feminist, a confident young woman secure in her knowledge of her abilities in the healing arts.

“City for Ransom” is a fascinating look at an event – the Chicago World’s Fair – that influenced future expositions and the landscape architecture of major American cities. It prefigured the 20th Century and the creation of attractions like Disneyland. After all, Walt Disney spent his early childhood in Chicago, where he was born in 1901, and was influenced by the fair.

Chicagoan Rob Walker’s novel is also a historically accurate take on Chicago, a city that has fascinated writers as diverse as Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht and Sherwood Anderson, all the way to the present with the poet laureate of the city, playwright and filmmaker David Mamet.

Publisher’s web site: http://www.avonmysteries.com

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