David Hagerty has penned four books in the Duncan Cochrane mystery series about an ambitious businessman who decides to run for Governor of Illinois. Six weeks before election day, his daughter is murdered in his mansion along the Chicago lakefront. All four books detail the fallout from that case on his family and his state.
Hagerty presently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here he talks about his approach to the mystery genre, his real-life settings and his inspirations.
What inspired your series?
All of my books started with real events. The first, They Tell Me You Are Wicked, was inspired by the murder of U.S. Sen. Charles Percy’s daughter six weeks before his first election in 1966. It is the most famous crime in the history of my hometown, Kenilworth, Illinois, and one that allowed me to blend my pet themes of crime and politics.
The other books riffed off Mayor Jane Byrne’s decision to move into the city’s most infamous housing project after a series of sniper killings there, the Tylenol poisonings, and the Innocence Project. For me, these events hold as much prominence in Chicago lore as the bootlegging of Al Capone or the death of John Dillinger.
Why set your mystery series in the 70s/80s?
In Chicago, it constituted the end of an era in politics. Richard J. Daley, who’d held the mayor’s office and the city for nearly two decades, had just passed away. His democratic Machine was fragmented by conflicting interests and a vacuum of leadership. It seemed the perfect time to introduce an ambitious, naive aspirant to the Second City’s throne.
Since your books take place decades ago, you can’t use some of the modern crime fighting technology.
I’d rather not depend on science in a story. Cell phones, CSI tricks, and modern science dilute the story and rob the characters of agency. I prefer the style of Foyle’s War, where the detective has to figure things out from clues. Thus, setting a mystery in an era before DNA appealed to me.
Why do you use pop culture in your books?
When I started this series, I struggled with how best to capture the time. Unlike TV or movies, where visual cues often identify the period, I didn’t want to spend too much ink on describing the blender or the telephone a character is using. Instead, I pulled in references to cue the reader, such as the movies or songs that are playing.
I also used period slang for several of the characters, both because I think it spices up the dialogue and because it’s true to the time. Not every character, of course. I don’t want the attorney general saying “groovy.” Just enough so everyone has his or her own sound.
You also have a penchant for real places.
Chicago has so much history and so many iconic places, I decided it was better to include those than to fabricate a locale. So I used the Palmer House and Drake hotels, two of the city’s most prestigious. My characters eat at Manny’s Deli and the Billy Goat Tavern, two local dives popular with politicians and journalists. They live in the Marina Towers and work in the John Hancock Center. I want readers to learn about the city’s past and its famous (and obscure) habitats.
What’s next for you?
I have one more short story with these characters that I’m polishing, a reflection on the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in Illinois during 1982, when feminists chained themselves to the steps of the state Capitol. Then I’m onto a new environment: the Navajo reservation. I’ve published several short stories in a series starring the same character, which I’m now weaving into a novel. It’s a mystery, but of a much different ilk, with a historical context in the first half of the twentieth century and another culture entirely.
How did you happen to select the reservation as a setting?
Happenstance. I love Navajo weaving and have visited the reservation many times. Then I heard about a controversial amateur archeologist named Richard Weatherill, who helped to create a market for Indian antiquities, and my mind started working.