“This is what we had chosen for ourselves–with bullets, riots, and a war that was tearing the country apart, this man who had accused innocent people of being communists, who had chosen a vice-presidential candidate who used the word ‘nigger’ in public, who used any stepping-stone he could to climb toward the highest office in the land.”
I shivered when I read that line. Published in 2001 and set in August 1968, Nelscott has no right to that kind of prescience.
The second book in the Smokey Dalton series, Smoke Filled Rooms centers on Chicago during one hot and emotional August when the Democratic National Convention comes to town. Smokey was hoping to find a safe home in Chicago for himself and Jimmy, after barely escaping Memphis with their lives, but it doesn’t look like peace will come any time soon. Although couch space with his friend Franklin and his family gives them respite while Smokey looks for new space, it soon comes to an end.
Like the best mysteries, Smoke Filled Rooms is rich in time and place. The feeling of a contentious, insecure America shows on every page, from the perspective of a black man trying to keep his head down while events unfold around him. Prior connections have brought them to Chicago, a city on high alert after the assassinations of MLK and Robert Kennedy. Smokey’s doing his best to stay out of politics, but his job in security at the Hilton means he is on the front lines professionally. Home is overshadowed by undercover cops doing their best to scare locals into submission, and a neighbor asking for a favor to find a missing boy.
Nelscott has written a solid mystery thriller, the story of a man doing his best to protect his child while seeking a murderer. Unlike many detectives, Smokey quickly becomes enmeshed in the local community. One of my favorite things about this book, and likely the series, is the sense of community connection. But what makes Nelscott’s stories stand out is the one-two combination of the time period from the perspective of a black man. It seems marvelously well done, and it was only late in the book that I noticed how well the racial tables had shifted; characters are assumed black unless specifically mentioned as white. Neighborhoods are mentally categorized into ‘safe’ for blacks, and ‘unsafe,’ with the caveat that a black presence in some places will result in a police presence. But the times, they are a changin’, and even Smokey finds his old stereotypes challenged when his former white–and rich–girlfriend Laura is brought back into the picture.
But are the times really changing? If there was one point (accidentally) hammered home, it’s that maybe things haven’t changed all that much. Recent killings of black people in Chicago by the police, protests against the system and particular candidates all sound scarily familiar. Being an indifferent history student, I wasn’t expecting to love Smoke Filled Rooms. But take historical politics and wrap it around a heart-pounding mystery, and you can even teach me. An excellent book on so many levels.