Fans of the award-winning musical Chicago will find plenty to like in The Girls of Murder City. Though it doesn’t have the catchy songs or choreographer Bob Fosse’s fancy footwork, this nonfiction look at the women who inspired the show gives plenty of salacious behind-the-scenes details about the murder trials that fascinated an entire city.
In 1924, aspiring reporter Maureen Watkins earned a spot on the crime beat at the Chicago Tribune, where she covered the sensational stories of alleged killers Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan. Gaertner and Annan were just two (although the most famous two) of the women on Murderesses’ Row, a wing that housed pretty young things awaiting trial for killing their husbands or lovers. Watkins’ editor made the most of her sweet temper and sympathetic looks, dispatching her for quotes and interviews that other reporters couldn’t get and it paid off: Watkins’ front-page stories were must-reads, filled with her own voice and style, that she turned into a play called Chicago in 1926. The story of Gaertner and Annan, now immortalized as Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly, also inspired a silent film, a Broadway musical, and a movie that earned the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2003.
Nonfiction books can get a little dull, but author Douglas Perry has plenty of spicy material to work with. He seamlessly weaves old newspaper articles, research, quotes, and commentary into a story about our obsession with celebrity murderers, while incorporating the biggest issues of the Jazz age including Prohibition and the rise of feminism. Narrator Peter Berkrot shifts from facts to scandal with an effortlessly smooth reading; Supporting characters including Watkins’ rival reporters, the murderesses’ cuckolded husbands, the murder victims’ widows, and the lawyers who turned the cases into an opportunity for fame get their own individual voices. Berkrot gives Gaertner and Annan readings that show how they walked the line between cold-blooded killers and coquettish young women making The Girls of Murder City a solid listen for history buffs, Law & Order fans, and Broadway lovers alike. Blythe Copeland
Chicago, 1924. There was nothing surprising about men turning up dead in the Second City. Life was cheaper than a quart of illicit gin in the gangland capital of the world. But two murders that spring were special - worthy of celebration. So believed Maurine Watkins, a wanna-be playwright and a "girl reporter" for the Chicago Tribune, the city's "hanging paper".
Newspaperwomen were supposed to write about clubs, cooking, and clothes, but the intrepid Miss Watkins, a minister's daughter from a small town, zeroed in on murderers instead. Looking for subjects to turn into a play, she would make "Stylish Belva" Gaertner and "Beautiful Beulah" Annan - both of whom had brazenly shot down their lovers - the talk of the town. Love-struck men sent flowers to the jail, and newly emancipated women sent impassioned letters to the newspapers. Soon more than a dozen women preened and strutted on "Murderesses' Row" as they awaited trial, desperate for the same attention that was being lavished on Maurine Watkins's favorites.
In the tradition of Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City and Karen Abbott's Sin in the Second City, Douglas Perry vividly captures Jazz Age Chicago and the sensationalized circus atmosphere that gave rise to the concept of the celebrity criminal. Fueled by rich period detail and enlivened by a cast of characters who seemed destined for the stage, The Girls of Murder City is crackling social history that simultaneously presents the freewheeling spirit of the age and its sober repercussions.
©2010 Douglas Perry (P)2010 Tantor
"Beneath the sensationalism, Perry finds anxieties about changing sex roles as feisty flappers and aggressive career women barged into public consciousness; his savvy, flamboyant social history illuminates a dawning age of celebrity culture." (Publishers Weekly)
This is a book that I would have liked better if I'd read it instead of listening to it. The pace is very quick and there were so many characters. If you lose your concentration at the wrong time, you'll be rewinding like I did--wait, who is she? If I'd had the photos that are in the book, it would have greatly enhanced the story. I tried to find photos online, on Mr. Perry's site, but I had to go to the library for the full experience. Not all the photos in the book are online.
Still, it's a fun read for fans of Chicago, like me. I wish there weren't two chapters on Leopold and Loeb. I know Maurine Watkins, etc., covered their story, but still...too much.
I'm glad I listened.
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