Horse-trading and headcounts consume Chicago’s aldermen as they choose a successor to their murdered mayor in NPR host Simon’s second novel (Pretty Birds, 2005).
The African-American mayor has been found dead at his desk. This opening inevitably revives memories of Harold Washington, Chicago’s only black mayor, also found dead at his desk, in 1987, from a heart attack. However, Simon has added a twist: His mayor has been poisoned. Somebody sprinkled nicotine distillate on the mayor’s pizza. Perhaps sensing that crime writing is not his forte, Simon moves the investigation to the back burner; this is not a whodunit. Sunny Roopini, the protagonist, has been sworn in as acting interim mayor. The 48-year-old Sunny, the mayor’s protégé, is an immigrant from India. He has two teenage daughters; his wife was recently gunned down at a currency exchange (she was an innocent bystander). Old trouper that he is, the genial Sunny continues the glad handing he has perfected during his years on the council. His ward is one of the city’s most diverse, and Sunny is the very model of a multicultural alderman; he has even added Italian dishes to the menu at the Indian restaurant he owns. Food matters here; the characters plough their way through a heap of ethnic specialties. Ethnicity matters too, in this city of 100 languages. But there is no racial animosity: In Simon’s Chicago, there’s good-humored accommodation. This makes the competition among the 50 aldermen to become the next mayor about as exciting as a pillow fight. Simon’s attempts to whip up some excitement are lame; one leading contender has been filmed taking a bribe (he acquits himself honorably), another confesses to having had sex with two male cops, part of his security detail. The climax is an interminable roll-call vote.
Simon’s boring trivialization of Chicago politics is a major disappointment after the phenomenally good Pretty Birds.