Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Death at Pullman

By Frances McNamara
$4.99 at Smashwords and Amazon

One of America’s first great labor struggles provides the setting for Death at Pullman, Frances McNamara’s historical novel about a murder in Pullman, Illinois, during the 1894 strike against the railway car company of that name.

The murder occurs during a strike/lockout in which the nascent labor movement is taking on the powerful manufacturer of luxury passenger cars. A young Pullman worker is found hanging in a shed with a sign around his neck proclaiming “Spy.” The discovery sets off the kind of finger-pointing and conspiracy theorizing that often follows anonymous violence occurring in the midst of bitter conflicts. Did the young man’s striking colleagues really discover that he was spying on them for the Pullman Company? Did George Pullman’s goons stage the murder to create suspicion and threaten the workers’ solidarity? Could the cause have been another, more personal reason?

Emily Cabot, a protégé of the great reformer Jane Addams, whose Hull House sits in a Chicago slum, is the book’s protagonist and voice. Robber baron George Pullman, who owns the town and controls the local police and the dreaded Pinkertons, is the villain of the tale. His counterpart is labor founding father Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Railway Union. Pullman workers technically were not railway men, but the union sought to organize them and supported their strike.

George Pullman had built what appeared to be an idyllic town for his workers, and he was full of righteous indignation that mere working men, even women, would challenge his absolute right to set both the wages paid his employees and the rents charged for their housing.

Though McNamara – and probably any other right-thinking person – is sympathetic to the striking workers who were less interested in building a labor movement than in trying to survive and feed their families, she gives a balanced account of the economic realities Pullman faced. Orders for his cars had fallen sharply, dragging down his revenues with them.

Emily Cabot and Dr. Stephen Chapman have been sent to Pullman by Jane Addams to help feed and attend to the striking workers and their families. Emily has an on-again-off-again love interest in Chapman, and the book includes enough light romance to offset the brawny action.

As a murder mystery, Death at Pullman is serviceable. But it is its well-researched descriptions of people and places and its depiction of the ground-breaking struggle between management and labor that set it apart. A reader who would never pick up a history book on the subject will enjoy the story and consider the educational factor an added, even subliminal bonus.

I have not read the other books in McNamara’s Emily Cabot series, Death at Hull House and Death at the Fair, which also are set in the Chicago area of the late 19th century. But if they are on par with this one, their value proposition more than justifies inclusion on our Great Books Under $5 blog.

Click here to link to Death at Pullman.

Bill Furlow

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