Tag Archives: murder

A ‘Winsome’ World of Lies

CBR_Logo2A Winsome Murder
by James Devita

Chicago Police Detective James Mangan has a heavy case load—“two rapes, a North Side drive-by, a robbery gone bad with a baseball bat, and a dealer thrown off a roof in the projects”—when he is handed his next investigation.

That investigation is launched when Mangan opens a manila envelope to find inside a photograph of a dismembered hand, a hand that had recently been delivered to a local magazine editor in a padded envelope just like so many padded envelopes that every day are added to his unending slush pile of article submissions. As it happens, the hand turns out to winsome murderbe quite a story in and of itself.

James Mangan, a somewhat offbeat, self-educated intellectual who hears voices in his head, knows in his heart that the owner of the hand is dead—and so begins the search for that individual in A Winsome Murder, a tightly woven detective story full of colorful characters navigating numerous twists and turns.

Set in Chicago and Wisconsin, A Winsome Murder features several gruesome murders along with a cast of interesting people, from police officers and detectives to hookers and pimps to waitresses and writers—not to mention a psychotic, vengeful misogynist. Many of the lives so vividly brought to life in these pages intersect in interesting ways, and author James Devita does an excellent job of weaving the reader in to the tight-knit circle of crime that unfolds in this mystery.

Devita, a New York-bred playwright and author who now lives in Spring Green, Wisconsin, has written a fast-paced, multifaceted story that is as absorbing as it is entertaining. Detective Mangan drives the story, and he is an intriguing, complex character with fascinating yet believable quirks. Although it seems that so many mysteries are home to detectives with oddball idiosyncrasies, Mangan doesn’t come off as a cliché. Yes, he probably drinks too much. Yes, he’s overweight. Yes, his wife is no longer in the picture. And, yes, he has a daughter who ends up in jeopardy. But Mangan somehow still feels like a fresh, new character—and one who could easily become part of a long-lived series.

As the bodies pile up in A Winsome Murder, Mangan heeds the voices in his head, usually from Shakespeare or Melville, and those voices help him focus his thoughts and tap into a kind of sixth sense that propels him toward a solution to the crime. Peppered with literary references, Mangan’s unique quirk lends the story a erudite bent, one that might well be appealing to closet mystery readers who think the genre somehow beneath them.

Although a quirky detective seems a prerequisite for a mystery, A Winsome Murder is far from formulaic. Expertly paced, the story is an intricate web full of complex characters acting unpredictably—just like real people do. Even at those times when the reader might be a half-step ahead of the story, the developments remain gasp-worthy, surprising even if not shocking.

In addition to a unique detective, a wholly original story, and some literary flair, Devita has filled these pages with some timely and biting social commentary, which does much to add to the real feel of this creative whodunit. A Winsome Murder is well written, well wrought, and well paced. It is well worth a read, a fun, enjoyable, engaging page-turner that draws you in and doesn’t let go until the last page.

Four-Star Review

June 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
$26.95, hardcover, 189 pages
ISBN: 978-0299304409

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Green Monsters

CBR_Logo2Blood Runs Green:
The Murder That Transfixed
Gilded-Age Chicago

by Gillian O’Brien

“The story had everything an editor could want: conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder.”

So writes Gillian O’Brien in Blood Runs Green, a history of the 1889 murder of one Dr. P. H. Cronin, a man who at the time was a respected physician and cunning politician but whose notoriety over the past century has faded like long-forgotten copy on crinkled, yellowed pages of so many defunct newspapers.

Add to “conspiracy, theft, dynamite, betrayal, and murder” some politics, corruption, patriotism, nationalism, and religion, and you paint an even fuller picture of the murder and melodrama that marked Cronin’s misfortune. Toss in some sensationalism courtesy of Chicago’s numerous newspapers of the day, and you have a blood runs green 9780226248950story as captivating today as it was more than a century ago.

Cronin, an Irishman who emigrated from Ireland to North America in the mid-1800s, rose through the ranks of Chicago society and politics as a respected doctor, aspiring political leader, and compelling figure among the members of Clan na Gael, a secret society of Irish Americans who fought for Ireland’s independence from Britain, often through violence. Cronin soon finds himself pitted against one Andrew Sullivan, a power-hungry man of dubious character, as they jockey for position amongst the cream of Chicago’s Irish community. The distaste the two men feel for each other is no secret, so when Cronin disappears and later turns up dead—found naked and disfigured in a sewer in Lakeview—Sullivan and his cronies become suspects in a murder that would long capture the attention of Chicago and even the world.

An important figure in Chicago and in the Irish-American community, Cronin’s disappearance and murder fascinated the public, stumped the police, inspired journalists, and troubled politicians. O’Brien notes that the story “transfixed” curious onlookers in Chicago, Dublin, and London as they spent hours every day speculating about what might have happened to Cronin, who was involved, why he was murdered, and what would happen to those responsible for his death. Leaders in the Irish community feared what might happen to their secret societies if the investigation into Cronin’s death revealed the inner workings of their clubs. Reporters mixed fact and fiction to sell evermore newspapers to voracious readers who couldn’t get enough of the intrigue surrounding the case. And politicians on either side of the pond wondered what Cronin’s death—and Sullivan’s implication—would mean for the Irish independence movement.

Much is going on in these pages, and O’Brien does a fine job of unraveling a tangled web of nationalism, patriotism, politics, corruption, power, and murder. She takes readers behind the scenes to see inside Clan na Gael and the Irish National League of America. She details the unsavory rush to publish scoops that led journalists to fabricate stories and report half-truths. And she brings readers into the courtroom as the fantastic trial played out in front of thousands of spellbound onlookers.

O’Brien paints a vivid picture of Irish Chicago in the mid to late 1800s, a powerful community that in many ways shaped the city. The political jockeying, backroom power struggles, and secret deal-making of the day are clearly evident in these pages. With its numerous players and their various shenanigans, the discussion of the political complexities that colored the case at times feels a little tangled and dense, but O’Brien does a fine job of laying a foundation here, spelling out for the reader how this intricate tapestry of power and politics blanketed every aspect of the case, from the conspiracy that led to Cronin’s murder to the newspaper coverage of it to the bungled investigation to the sensational trial and beyond.

Blood Runs Green is at its best when O’Brien shares the details of the discovery of Cronin’s disfigured corpse and the speculation, innuendo, and investigation that followed. Her portrayal of the courtroom drama that eventually took place also is riveting. Fans of true crime will find these portions of the book to be page-turning must-reads.

Although O’Brien notes that the Cronin murder remained in the headlines for decades, chances are that most of today’s readers will be unfamiliar with the story. In retelling a tale that for years captured the attention of Chicagoans as well as international readers, O’Brien has shared a slice of history that had long-lasting and far-reaching implications. Thoroughly researched and well told, Blood Runs Green is a timeless story that deftly captures the feel of an era.

Three-Star Review

March 2015, University of Chicago Press
History/True Crime
$25, hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-226-24895-0

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Politics and Poison

Chicago 1907, a Corrupt System, an Accused Killer, and the Crusade to Save Him
by Steve Shukis

A charismatic, resolute Catholic priest takes on Chicago’s corrupt, turn-of-the-twentieth century political machine in Poisoned, a meticulously researched, true-life account of the fight to save a self-professed-innocent death row inmate.

Herman Billik acknowledged having a romantic fling with Rose Vrzal, a married mother of seven from Chicago’s ethnic Bohemian Pilsen neighborhood. But he vehemently denied poisoning her—and her husband and four daughters—with arsenic.

Poisoned coverDespite evidence that someone else may have committed the murders in 1905 and 1906—and that key witnesses later lied on the stand based on illegal interrogation and coercion by investigators—Billik remained incarcerated for a decade as a politically allied ring of officials from the Cook County coroner to the state’s attorney, to the trial judge, to the Chicago chief of police all the way up to the governor of Illinois, fought both actively and through intentional inaction to keep his conviction from being overturned.

The political landscape of the day ultimately becomes the story in Poisoned. That landscape was one in which decisions were based not on justice for the wrongly accused, but on damage control, especially in election years, with any admission of witness tampering, payoffs, and other illegal tactics tantamount to political suicide. It nearly supersedes in interest the actual facts of the Billik case.

Not that the facts are boring. Soap opera-like, the 1907 trial riveted the nation, and quickly became a bona fide media circus. With the proceedings on their doorstep, Chicagoans clamored for front-row seats.

In the summer of 1907, the Chicago Cubs and White Sox were top contenders for the upcoming World Series. “But the hottest ticket in town was for Judge Barnes’ courtroom,” Shukis writes. “Men in neckties and bowler hats, and ladies in floor-length dresses, their wide-brimmed hats decorated with feathers and ribbons, filled every seat in the room, and it would stay that way for the entire trial.”

The twists that should have—but failed to—save Billik are often jaw dropping. “Clues were brought forward, but only some were investigated,” Shukis writes.

Shukis notes that the depth of corruption was evident in the fact that an assistant coroner’s physician named Henry Reinhardt found no arsenic in the body of William Niemann. Niemann, a son-in-law of the murdered Vrzal family, died mysteriously in November 1907 while he was married to Emma Vrzal Niemann, a surviving daughter who many suspected was the true murderer. Had arsenic been found in Niemann’s body, a case could have been made to release Billik and to convict Emma of all of the murders. But after a cursory examination, Reinhardt reported no trace of it.

Reinhardt’s boss, Cook County Coroner Peter Hoffman, “clearly did not want poison to be discovered,” Shukis writes. “It would have cast an enormous cloud over Billik’s conviction and suggested that he, State’s Attorney Healy, Police Chief Shippy, and Judge Barnes had condemned an innocent man.”

Reinhardt “owed his job to Coroner Hoffman and the Republican cabal that ruled local government,” Shukis continues. “There was little incentive for Reinhardt to search very hard for poison when its discovery would only create problems for him and the rest of his own political organization.”


Author Steve Shukis

Shukis does an excellent job of organizing the book, weaving in short snippets of background and context throughout, which illuminate the points he is trying to make. He explains how arsenic poisoning affects the body and how, if given in small doses over time, arsenic poisoning can look like death from natural causes. He brings in the Republican National Convention of 1908, which was held in Chicago, to illustrate the power of the city, state, and national political machine. He discusses other murder trials, including that of serial killer Johann Hoch, who was hanged in Chicago in February 1906 on the same gallows later prepared for Billik, and happenings in Chicago and nationwide that affected and motivated those involved in the Billik case. And he points to other scandals, some years later, which embroiled officials involved in the Billik case, illustrating the dubious character of those people.

Although some readers familiar with Chicago history might already know the outcome of Billik’s case when they pick up Poisoned, for those new to the story, Shukis does a great job of not giving away the ending. It flows very much like a novel, building in page-turner intensity throughout. Nowhere in any of the cover matter is the fate of Billik or Emma Vrzal Niemann revealed, and the author successfully avoids excessive foreshadowing that would have wrecked the suspense.

The author also skillfully slips in his analysis of the story through the metered use, here and there, of a key word or two. When Cook County Circuit Judge Albert Barnes, in 1907, denies Billik a motion for a new trial, Shukis writes, for instance, that he “righteously declared that no man had ever received a fairer trial.”

Poisoned could have been improved with additional pictures. The 300-page book includes only about a dozen photographs, almost all of them posed individual shots of players in the Billik drama, mug shots of Billik, and images of family members appearing at inquests and at the trial. The author does a nice job of weaving into the text background on the Pilsen neighborhood and other tidbits about the era, such as the anarchist movement, Chicago baseball, and other infamous murder trials. Photos illustrating that background would have helped bring the story to life, and would have helped break up long stretches of gray text. It would have been nice to see, for example, historical newspaper images of the massive crowds that were drawn to public demonstrations seeking Billik’s pardon.

Despite these minor quibbles, Poisoned is a finely written, riveting indictment of Chicago’s early twentieth-century political machine, a fitting remembrance of the self-professed innocent man ensnared by it and of those who dared to stand up against it.

Four-Star Review

September 2014, TitleTown Publishing
$26.95, hardcover, 288 pages
ISBN: 978-099119381-3

—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann

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