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City For Ransom

by Robert W Walker

      Just over twenty years after the Great Fire, Chicago is rebuilding itself at a cracking pace and 1893 is the year of the Exposition. But while folk flock to the fair to ride the Ferris wheel, a serial killer is preying on both men and women, strangling them with his trademark garrote and setting the bodies alight. Inspector Alastair Ransom is something of a legend in the city for rough justice and a jaded outlook on life. As the body count rises, he has to stay a step ahead of the killer and sort out his tangled social life - but are the two entwined?

If you think that historical whodunits are invariably cozy then perhaps this book might change your mind. There is absolutely nothing cozy about it, although I did find it somewhat cliché-ridden. The world-weary detective looking for love, the tough but vulnerable woman carving out a career as a doctor in a prejudiced society, the serial killer preying on the young and damaged... there is nothing new in here, and what there is could use a tweak to make it at least seem more original. The star of this particular show is the author's descriptions of Chicago, and of a time when the old was being swept away by the new. Ransom and his colleagues wrestle with new sciences like psychological profiling and the arcane phrenology. The city itself is painted in shades of black and gray, a place where too many live in grinding poverty and where violence is a way of life. In short this is a historical roman noir, the relationships between the characters and also between them and their city far more the meat and potatoes of this novel than the actual crime. Lurking behind it all is an old sin casting long shadows, and Ransom frequently reminisces over the 1886 Haymarket riots, which sound irresistibly like the ones in Terry Pratchett's Night Watch. The first of a new series, I am sure.

The Book

Avon Mystery (Harper Collins)
January 2006
Historical Crime [1893, Chicago]
More at
NOTE: Some violence

The Reviewer

Rachel A Hyde
Reviewed 2006
© 2006