In my last post, I wrote about stumbling upon the adorable town of Maysville, Kentucky, which is in fact so cute it could be the eighth member of BTS. Today, I will tell you about my quest to find a similar place, so that I could kill people there.
Warning for readers who are sensitive to disturbing cow trivia: This post will also feature details about history’s only mass-murdering bovine.
When I originally pitched my latest series to St. Martin’s Press, I knew I wanted the restaurant at the heart of the books to serve deep-dish pizzas, which to me, necessitated setting the series in the home of deep-dish: Chicago. Fairly early in the process, I’d settled on centering the action in the Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s an interesting part of town, culturally rich and ethnically diverse. I always like to throw real tidbits of a place’s past into my books, and Hyde Park teems with fascinating history. I decided to make one of the main characters a great-grandson of the legendary Chi-town gangster Al Capone, who frequently conducted business in Hyde Park’s Shoreland Hotel.
The overall feedback from the editor on my pitch was reassuringly positive. The publisher loved the characters, the chonky cat, and the deep-dish pizzas. The only thing they didn’t love was the setting. This type of book usually takes place in a small, tightly-knit community. As my agent said, “somewhere people can relax and take a mental vacation.” I resisted. One of the most popular and durable cozy mystery series out there, Cleo Coyle’s Coffeehouse Mysteries, is set in Manhattan! How could I do a deep-dish murder mystery series without setting it in Chicago?
My aunt Sandra and my husband arrived at the answer independently, both encouraging me to consider relocating the series to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. I resisted at first, but as I delved deeper into the area’s history, I began to see the appeal.
Lake Geneva is nestled in rolling, lake-dotted countryside about 90 minutes’ drive north of Chicago. The Chicago connections are myriad. European settlement around the lake developed in several phases. One was as a series of “camps” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As the middle classes in the Chicago area grew, they started forming associations called “clubs” or “camps,” in which members would group together to buy land where members could hunt, fish, and boat. Some of the camps were formed around employees of one particular business or from one particular town or area of the city. For example, Lake Geneva hosted an “Elgin Camp” and a “Congress Club” where people built cabins or houses or even collections of mansions where they and their families could pass the summer holidays.
Another big driver of growth happened following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. The fire, which urban myth attributes to the errant kick of a lantern by one of Mrs. O’Leary’s cows, killed 300 people. The veracity of the cow story is highly questionable and rooted in the anti-Irish bias of the time. Hard to believe that the Irish were kind enough to share their magically delicious cereal and their adorable accents with America, and all they got in return was decades of vicious prejudice, amirite? Although the bovine origin of the fire is almost definitely false, what is not disputed is the utter destruction caused by the blaze. It destroyed more than 3 square miles of the downtown, including 17,000 structures. One hundred thousand people were left homeless.
As parts of the city would be uninhabitable for years as the city was rebuilt, many of Chicago’s wealthiest families shifted their operations to Lake Geneva. Some expanded pre-existing dwellings. Others built brand-new mansions. The fire coincided with the completion of a rail line from Chicago to Lake Geneva, making travel back and forth easier than ever.
Speaking of transit, another quirk of geography and history deepened Lake Geneva’s Windy City connections. From 1920 to 1933, a constitutional amendment prohibited the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages throughout the U.S. So of course all Americans immediately stopped drinking as soon as that amendment was passed.
Hahahahahahahahaha! <<wipes tears>> Just kidding.
As anyone with even a borrowed brain cell could have guessed, it was a super dumb idea that allowed underworld criminality to thrive. Figures like Al Capone became extraordinarily wealthy, a billionaire in today’s money, by controlling the illegal booze supplies that poured into the Lower 48 from Canada. Capone also ran any number of other criminal enterprises, from brothels to casinos to protection rackets, and the availability of booze underpinned those businesses as well. The vast majority of Chicago’s alcohol came via routes through Michigan and Wisconsin.
Lake Geneva and its surroundings proved not only a convenient pit stop along this smuggling route, the area was also considered a good place for gangsters like Capone, Baby Face Nelson, and Bugs Moran to lay low when things in the big city got too hot.
Today, the Chicago -><- Lake Geneva connection is as strong as ever. About 80% of the tourists that the lake’s economy thrives on are visitors from the Windy City.
After I got over my initial reluctance to move the DEEP DISH MURDERS out of Chicago, I realized that glamourous, scenic, and idyllic Lake Geneva (rendered in the books in lightly fictionalized form as “Geneva Bay”) would be the perfect place for me to start my murder spree.
So look out Wisconsin, here I come!
The first book in the series, SIX FEET DEEP DISH, is available for pre-order wherever books are sold.