Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago resurrects three little-known aspects of history: the 1933 assassination attempt on Franklin D. Roosevelt that killed Chicago mayor Anton Cermak, the resulting political and social intrigue that gripped Chicago in the aftermath, and the historically popular illustrated novel. Written by Chicago historian, novelist and graphic artist J.B. Rivard, and published by Gray Dog Press, Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago is available for purchase here.
Writing good historical fiction is a difficult trick. You have to share enough information about the epoch to pull the reader back in time, but not cram in so much period know-how they run screaming back to the time machine. You must also ensure your characters talk the era’s talk, rather than sounding like human trivia dispensers.
By description, illustration and some thickly rendered white ethnic Chicagoan accents, Illusions of Magic, by J. B. Rivard, does a pretty good job of conjuring up 1930s Chicago’s gritty avenues, people and political climate. A challenge, since so much of Chicago from that time period has been obliterated. I imagine Mr. Rivard has walked those long-gone streets many times in his head. All well and good, I just wish the otherwise highly readable story he’s attached to this rendering of old Chicago was a bit stronger character and plot-wise.
Compared with grittier pulp yarns, Illusions of Magic isn’t bad. Just a bit tame. I felt like I was reading the script treatment of an never-produced film noir from the post-code days. I can see George Raft in the role of Nick Zetner, out-of-work magician and errand boy for a local ward boss, joined by classic Hollywood siren Gloria Grahame as Iris, your standard woman of mystery—though more femme than fatale. At a guess, I’d say Mr. Rivard cast the book in his mind with such silver screen actors.
The story clips along. Nick is a magician—though, as I recall, he does little magic in the book. Not much point to describing a magician performing a trick, I suppose, but his occupation just seems attached to make him more interesting. Short on funds, Nick acts as a go-between for a local banker seeking an envelope filled with photos that aren’t particularly damning. Which is good because they’re held by an individual who doesn’t seem interested in blackmail. I’m not sure why. Things just sort of happen.
Jack of all trades Rivard provides his own capable drawings of the characters. They remind me of the intermittent illustrations that pop up in the old Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries, but are much more competently rendered. Do they serve a particular purpose or advance the plot? Not especially, but I like Mr. Rivard’s initiative. I do wish he had illustrated a few more scenes around the city and fewer character studies of the book’s “cast”, but the text makes up for that by exploring sections of our town and its outskirts (Cicero, the White City, Bohemian National Cemetery, and elsewhere) usually underrepresented in other Windy City-set books, TV shows, and movies.
Rivard keeps the plot clicking and tastefully bloodless (only one murder and a quick smack to Nick’s ear delivered by the bad guy). He also shows a hilarious knack for capturing old-time Chicagoan accents, particularly those from the Czech community. The action is set against the assassination and death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, with bits here and there about the resulting power vacuum in the city, local politics and organized crime. All of it is accurate and lends some atmosphere to the story, but doesn’t seem to have much to do with the main plot. I would have liked to have seen more of that. Still, Rivard comes up with a few new takes on the old city I have yet to encounter anywhere else. His descriptions of driving around are compelling in their seeming banality.
In summary, Illusions of Magic is a tale that’s been told before, in different forms, but it’s still a tale well told.