Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago. J.B. Rivard. Spokane, Washington: Grey Dog Press, April 17, 2016, Trade Paperback, 233 pages.
Reviewed by Marssie Mencotti.
Chicago politics have never been boring. Chicago in 1933, dense with the influx of immigrants that began around the turn of the century, fostered a strange and powerful sub-rosa world of colorful characters and ethnic crime families. In Illusions of Magic: Love and Intrigue in 1933 Chicago by J.B. Rivard, the author drops the reader dead center into the city of big shoulders and shows us that daily life during a seemingly simpler time involved real danger, pain, alienation, missed opportunities, and fear.
The novel begins with the attempted assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the wounding of Anton Cermak, Chicago’s Mayor. As Cermak lay dying, the city’s crime families kick into high gear, scrambling to repair the political machine. A down-on-his-luck but likable magician, Nick Zeitner, takes a shady side job retrieving personal property that was stolen from the safe deposit box of a rich and powerful man. First, he has to find out who robbed the bank, and then he has to find out if he can negotiate a deal. Nick takes the job thinking he is just a simple go-between, but he soon finds himself deeply involved.
Nick is a magician of some skill, yet the nature of show business is such that he must float from contract to contract at the big ex-vaudeville venues to make a living. The depression is dragging on, and Prohibition is likely to be repealed in order to refill the nation’s empty tax coffers. Nick wants things to turn around, but he doesn’t know how to make that happen. Connie, Nick’s long-suffering wife, is tired of being poor, so Nick accepts a job from Liver Jack, Connie’s brother, a precinct captain. At first, the job seems easy; all he has to do is stick a toe into Chicago’s underworld and deliver a ransom for some old stolen photos. But as time goes on, the job becomes more complicated. Is it magic that protects Nick from the underground world of crime he can only imagine, or is his safety simply an illusion?
Rivard deftly weaves themes of romantic love, easy murder, and the power of jazz throughout the novel, which is told from the points of view of the people who live in this world of illegal activity and who make decisions based only on survival. The language contains a hard truthfulness and colorful phrases from everyday people trying to defend their little piece of turf. For example, Liver Jack tells Nick, “Listen. You gotta be practical. There’s nobody out there to replace him, even if we held an election. And Alderman Chessrina’s running so hard to replace him he’s sneaking breaths from Cermak’s oxygen tent just so he’ll look alive.”
Rivard both wrote and illustrated Illusions of Magic, and his storytelling is enriched by both his background as an artist and his experience as a writer. His characters are reminiscent of the colorful men and women of Damon Runyon and the tough guys of Nelson Algren. Similar to Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Rivard explores historic Chicago by illustrating how the events of that time affected and informed his characters. Rivard draws a vivid portrait of life in Chicago in 1933, with rent overdue and landlords scrambling just as much as tenants, and he craftily reminds us of the Eastern European mobs that operated on the South Side of the city. The novel is rife with historical and geographical references to buildings, companies, local streets, and restaurants, which makes the adventure more authentic.
The uncertainties of the political future of Chicago, Nick’s future as a magician, and the great illusion Nick creates to save his friends, make this adventure come together with a twist that is impressive and dramatically consistent with the sentiments of the time. Illusions of Magic is definitely an exciting read, rich with real Chicago references, dangerous criminals, forever friends, and genuine romance. Illusions of Magic is well worth reading for a thrilling trip back in time.