Death at Pullman is the third book in a series by Frances McNamara, a librarian at the University of Chicago and a mystery writer. It is an historical novel about the famous, or perhaps more accurately, the infamous strike in 1894 in Chicago. For those who have a hazy recollection of this event, which probably includes most of us who are not history majors, it was a divisive and violent event in which both sides vilified the other. George Pullman, however, had the money, and thus the political influence, to break the strike and force the laborers to take wages that left them barely able to survive.
I met with McNamara for coffee one recent Friday evening and we discussed her books and the eerie parallels between the political rhetoric at the turn of the Twentieth Century and today’s polarized commentary.
McNamara commented that one of the most chilling aspects of the strike was that Federal troops were ordered into Chicago. In effect, it was the occupation of an American city by Federal troops, one of the few times this has happened outside of the Civil War. The cover story used by the government was that the mails were being tampered with, but the real reason was that the wealthy were worried about the strike spreading to other sectors of the economy and wanted the power of the unions broken.
McNamara says that the 1890’s were a time when women made great social strides led by people such as Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells. These women were forces of nature who took social injustice personally. They used their personal charm, social connections and intellect to combat social problems and bring the plight of immigrants and working class people to the powerful and wealthy. It was an exciting time to be a woman and a great era to write about.
The Pullman strike was a surprise. George Pullman was at first lauded for his model factory town south of Chicago’s loop. At that time, most working class people lived in hovels because the low prevailing wages only allowed them to pay for substandard housing, food and not much else. Pullman, however, had brick cottages built with a hospital, church and even parks for his workers. While there was work and decent wages, people could afford to pay the rent and didn’t mind the fact that they had to live in Pullman if they worked for the Company.
However, there was a recession in 1893 and orders for the Pullman car declined. Pullman responded by lowering wages in an effort to keep people employed. However, he did not lower the rents because he said he needed a decent return on his investment. The Company leaned on the workers to pay their rent first and there wasn’t enough money to meet the rent and eat too. Workers and their families began, literally, to starve. Pullman did not see that this was a problem and was enraged that the workers walked out for higher wages.
What struck me was that like many conservative politicians today, he was unable or unwilling to see the cost in human suffering that his policies engendered and refused to negotiate with the workers. It reminded me of the overblown rants by certain political figures today about overpaid teachers and firemen.
As compelling and exciting as that summer in Pullman was, though, I do not find the fictional characters in the book up to the task. They spend too much time explicating what is happening in the strike rather than relating to one another. I think this is often a problem with historical fiction, particularly when an author takes on an event of magnitude and drama. In this story the events overshadow the characters. I want to see more of their foibles, reactions and fears but the author tends to sum up the characters’ reactions rather than showing them in the midst of a crisis.
The most effective scenes in the book are when the characters engage with each other. There’s a particularly good scene with the protagonist, Emily Cabot, her friend and maybe suitor, the doctor and the general of the occupying troops arguing about whether a low-life can be arrested. The scene where Emily follows a murderer is well done, too. There are many twists and turns in the plot and I did not guess the identity of the murderer before he was revealed, however, the book lacks the sustained tension that makes it impossible to put down.
If you like history, especially Chicago history, this will be an interesting read. If you like romance you might be disappointed despite the fact that much of the subplot hinges on sex. The love stories just don’t have enough give and take between the lovers to be engaging, but I did hope that certain characters would get together by the end of the book and was on the mark about half the time. However, it is nice to see women characters of personal strength and courage. Jane Addams is portrayed as a woman of warmth and intellect and a worthy mentor for Emily.
I have not read the previous two novels in the series, but they are also based on historical events and should provide entertaining lessons in local history. The series books are published by Allium Press, a Forest Park Publisher. They are available at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore.