Libby Fischer Hellmann didn't come to Chicago to write mysteries. When she wheeled her Corvair Monza off the Skyway, headed north, and hit Lake Shore Drive for the first time 30 years ago, the D.C. native had spent eight years in broadcast journalism on the east coast, including a stint with PBS's McNeil/Lehrer Report. Burnout had led her to quit her last broadcast job, as a night desk editor with NBC News, and she'd come here to work for public relations behemoth Burson-Marsteller. But Hellmann thinks that the combination—a news background and a new perspective as an outsider in a strange city—laid the groundwork for her career in detective fiction.
Her fifth novel, Easy Innocence, was published in April by Wisconsin-based Bleak House Books. It's the first of a planned new series featuring private eye Georgia Davis, a character Hellmann spun off from her four-book Ellie Foreman series, which began in 2002 with An Eye for Murder. The books are mostly set in the northern suburbs, which she now calls home and considers "addictive": Ellie, who just happens to keep stumbling across murder cases, is a documentary film producer living in Northbrook, and Georgia's an excommunicated Evanston cop. The land of expansive green lawns and sparkling shopping malls is hardly the traditional setting for crime lit, but, Hellmann says, "evil knows no boundaries."
Easy Innocence takes as a springboard the infamous 2003 "powder-puff" hazing incident at Glenbrook North High School, which sent five junior girls to the emergency room and made fodder for weeks of TV newscasts. In Hellmann's version a girl is killed, a mentally defective man is rousted for the crime, and Georgia Davis is set on the trail of what really happened. Hellmann says the novel grew out of fear. Her daughter was starting high school at the time, and the thought of how far a kid might go to get the "material goods that are badges of acceptance" provoked her "to pick up the carpet and see what's underneath." The mystery genre is a wonderful way to address social issues, she notes—often better than "knocking someone over the head" with an op-ed piece.
Not that she's above a little writerly head-knocking. Two years ago Hellmann founded the Outfit, a collective of Chicago crime writers who blog together at theoutfitcollective.com. The group—Sean Chercover, Barbara D'Amato, Michael Allen Dymmoch, Kevin Guilfoile, Sara Paretsky, and Marcus Sakey—has had an awful lot to say recently about Raymond Chandler, whose The Long Goodbye is the city's latest "One Book, One Chicago" selection. But they've also held forth on Sam Zell, Boeing's role in transporting CIA captives to secret prisons, and Pentagon propaganda efforts.
The blog, Hellmann says, is "a way of talking about things that weren't going into books." It also gives the members a way to hone their "nonfiction sharps" and keep their names out there when a book isn't forthcoming.
Hellmann's now working on a second Georgia Davis novel, in which Ellie Foreman will be a minor character. But also in the pipeline is a new thriller that departs from series mode: Set the Night on Fire, in which a contemporary narrative sandwiches a tale that encompasses the '68 Democratic convention and the shootings at Kent State University.
There's Chicago again. The city seems basic to both her work and her success. For one thing, Hellmann thinks the old boys' club ("and now the old girls' club") back east would've proved too daunting to crack. "Maybe it's a foolish fantasy, but if you have a good idea and are willing to work," she says, "Chicago will sit up and listen." Remembering that first ride up Lake Shore Drive, she recalls her surprise at the beauty of what she saw, but adds, "It's a city that's beautiful and profane, and proud of it."v
EASY INNOCENCELibby Fischer HellmannBleak House Books, $14.95