I am much fonder of the musical Chicago than I probably should be. I/ve never seen it on stage, but the movie version came out at a time when...well, lets just say that a story about thwarted women who killed their men wasn't all that far-fetched to me, and I loved The Cell Block Tango (still do). I'm not sure when I learned that the show was fact-based, but it was when I read Douglas Perrys The Girls of Murder City that I discovered just how ripped from the headlines - of 1924 - it really is. By the way, the word Chicago in the books subtitle really is properly offset by quotation marks or a change in font, because it refers to Chicago the show, not Chicago the city; while the ""merry murderesses of the Cook County Jail" certainly did captivate the city, I'm not sure how truly inspiring they were. Having said that, Perry's book is also concerned with another woman - reporter Maurine Watkins, who indeed was inspired to base her first stage play on two of the sensational murder trials she covered for the Chicago Tribune. I think she was pretty inspiring, to be honest.
Perry relies on both contemporary accounts and later works in his exhaustive research for The Girls of Murder City, but the last adjective that describes this work of narrative nonfiction is dry. Its primary subject is the consecutive murder trials of "Beautiful Beulah" Annan and "Stylish Belva" Gaertner - the models for Chicago's Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly - both in court during the spring of 1924 to defend against charges of shooting and killing men who were not their husbands. Both cases were salacious and scandalous, and Chicago's many newspapers fed the public appetite for news about the glamorous defendants. Women were rarely convicted of murder by Chicago's all-male juries - especially if they were good-looking women - but following a couple of recent guilty verdicts, there was more at stake for Beulah and Belva.
Within this framework, Perry also delves into the stories of several other Chicago murderesses of the time, the reporters - mostly women, including Watkins - who told those stories to the public, the way things operated and the challenges faced by women at the newspapers where those reporters worked, and the unrestrained climate of Prohibition-era Chicago, where underground jazz clubs flourished and illegal liquor flowed freely. (If you ask me, Prohibition is an object lesson in irony.) He's got great material to work with, and he crafts it into a page-turner with a firm sense of its time and place. The pace is brisk, and the writing is vivid and occasionally breathless, but Perry succeeds in putting the reader right in the midst of events, including Watkins' application of her satirical eye to shape them into a hit, prize-winning stage comedy (the musical adaptation came years later).
The environment described in The Girls of Murder City seems to be the birthplace of the celebrity-obsessed, fame-for-its-own-sake mindset we know all too well these days, and it's fascinating in much the same way. Despite being almost a century old, the story here has a sense of immediacy and a contemporary feel, and its blend of true crime and modern history absolutely held my attention - even without The Cell Block Tango.