In Depression-era Chicago, Amos Jansen, clerk at the Chicago Modern Literature Society, welcomes Ernest Hemingway to the city to give a reading. Shortly after his arrival, Jansen’s boss, Professor Eldon, is found shot dead in his office.
The conceit of this crime caper is an ingenious and entertaining one. As Jansen investigates the murder to clear his own name, he has the help of Hemingway, Nelson Algren, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Carl Sandburg, as well as the legendary lawyer, Clarence Darrow. These characters are well drawn and indulge in a good deal of clever and witty dialogue, even if the literary allusions are sometimes a little laboured. The period atmosphere is terrific, achieved not just through detailed description but through the use of a hard-boiled narrative voice reminiscent of the greats such as Hammett or Chandler.
Ultimately, however, the novel does not deliver on its promise. The problem is that, while a murder with a literary theme is set up, what we get is a much darker story of labour unrest, police corruption and intimidation. About halfway through, the story becomes bogged down by a heavy-handed political message. Of course this has considerable modern resonance as we head, it seems, into another great depression, but Conroy does not appear to trust his readers to work this out for themselves. His preaching undermines the early fun and tends to leave the reader feeling vaguely guilty about having the leisure to read a novel at all.
Although the book is a nice package, with a stylish cover design and good paper and print quality, the editing is disappointing. I spotted a number of spelling errors, omitted words and – most irritating of all – a couple of hanging clauses.