Best Local Nonfiction Writer

Critics' Picks

John Conroy

There are so many right choices. From an old lion like Garry Wills (author of two of my favorite books ever, Nixon Agonistes and The Kennedy Imprisonment) to newcomer Martin Preib (whose 2010 collection The Wagon seems at first glance like essays about cop life but turns out to be more a philosophical reflection on the inner life of the city), there’s no shortage of great nonfiction writers in Chicago. But if there’s one book by a local that you have to read right now, it’s John Conroy’s undersung 2000 work Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture.

Readers are probably most familiar with Conroy, a former Reader staff writer, from his years-long investigation into torture in the Chicago Police Department, reportage that is back in the spotlight again with former commander Jon Burge on trial. But Conroy expanded on his epic series—which eventually involved almost two decades of reporting—with a look at torture not just in Chicago but in Israel and Belfast as well. It deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as more recent work by Jane Mayer, Mark Danner, and Errol Morris, but because it predates Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo it hasn’t gotten near the attention it deserves, despite the plaudits it received at publication. Tragically, it’s become even more relevant since then.