Review: In the City by the Lake by Taylor Saracen

When Viktor Mikhailov follows in his father’s footsteps and joins the relatively insignificant Russian mob, he is given an assignment none of his comrades want, yet Viktor cannot help but be secretly pleased. The city is a cesspool of organized crime, with several outfits fighting for a piece of the Prohibition pie, and Viktor’s slice is the openly gay Towertown. Tasked with providing whiskey to the queer clubs he covertly frequents, Viktor gains monetary wealth while finding himself in an unconventional relationship with his top client’s muse, an enigmatic redhead named Calvin Connolly.

Calvin—along with throngs of idealists who pack the pansy parlors—believes they stand on the precipice of a revolution, but Viktor is not convinced. A skeptic by both nature and lack of nurture, Viktor questions the conservative culture’s capacity for true change while hoping that broad acceptance is imminent. Perhaps then he could accept the parts of himself he hides.

While the repeal of Prohibition leads to financial issues for Viktor, a Depression-era disapproval of the liberal lifestyles of the 1920s initiates a slew of deeper problems. Sensationalized news stories regarding a rash of sex crimes paint homosexuals as depraved monsters and precipitate numerous laws against the queer community. The government’s intent is not only to eradicate pansy parlors—but homosexuality entirely. When an unexpected arrest forces Viktor to arrive at a decision he feels unprepared to make, he struggles with the ramifications.

IN THE CITY BY THE LAKE is a work of historical fiction focused on the emotional journey of a twenty-one-year-old closeted mobster living in Chicago during the LGBT emergence of the late 1920s to early 1930s, a period deemed the “Pansy Craze.”

Taylor Saracen certainly knows her way around the English language. She penned a novel that is poignant and captivating. In the City by the Lake is part character study, part history lesson that provide a backdrop for an unforgettable romance.

Viktor, a Russian emigrant and low level mobster, narrates this story. A complex character, full of self-hate whose father fanned those flames at a tender age subsequent to his mother’s death in childbirth. He’s broody with a dash of misanthropy and seems to find suffering his norm. Even though everyone calls him a pessimist they all seem to enjoy being around him; he, of course, thinks himself a realist. A realist moored to the notion that he’s destined to be alone forever. A realist who despite this belief becomes hopelessly besotted by Abe’s Peach upon first sight. 

Viktor has always traveled light, making due with one offs and decidedly closeted. Because Russian mafia. Ironically, he's assigned the Towerton district, the gay mecca of 20s and 30s Chicago. Abe owns The Gallery and shelters, among other things, several of his employees including a man he calls “Peach”. 

Peach a.k.a. Cal Connolly hails from Georgia, is a ginger and Viktor’s polar opposite-outgoing, gregarious and effervescent, shining like a beacon in a sky full of stars. Right from the start Viktor wants him but doesn’t want to jeopardize his lucrative relationship with Abe, thus the pining begins and it was delicious. He feels unworthy of Cal, recognizing he's a creature of darkness whereas Cal is a creature of the light. Afraid of dimming that luminescence, he endeavors to keep his distance.

A fool's errand if ever there were one.

In the City by the Lake spans from 1929-1937 starting during the “Pansy Craze” and encompasses the denouement of the halcyon days of the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, the Great Depression, The New Deal and the fountainhead of WWII. Saracen clearly did her research which in turn had me doing some cursory research of my own. I knew nothing of the Pansy Craze nor of Chicago's instrumental role in it, so references to actual events that I never knew about, some magnificent and others ghastly, prodded me to look for myself. 

left is roaring 20s; right is 30s homophobia

Imagine going from the toast of every major metropolitan city, living openly and thriving to being rounded up and put into “fruitcake factories” or worse. I didn’t do extensive research but I believe this epoch marked the emergence of conversion therapy. Parallels between then and now with the outlandish correlations made, xenophobia, homophobia and conservative backlash were hard to miss; the queers got blamed for everything from heinous crimes to the Great Depression itself. It seemed to be particularly bad in Chicago where rampant charges of indecency were handed out, many of which flaunted entrapment laws and fear mongering in the press was egregious. 

Naturally, this leads to conflict as they are forced to endure Chicago as it becomes increasingly less friendly to the “pansies”. But what amazed and delighted me was even though things are bleak with a sense of foreboding for what lies ahead, they still carve out moment after moment of joy and happiness. They have next to nothing and are systematically being persecuted but they have each other. Even if its just going to a Cubs game or going to Bughouse Square or making a feast of Campbell's soup, they reveled in it. They don’t escape totally unscathed and trigger warning for secondary character death (that gutted me) but there is a glorious, hard fought and an HEA that, honestly, I was momentarily unsure was going to happen. 

In the City by the Lake is not a sexy book; there are only oblique references to sex or fade to black scenes. However, what it lacks in sexiness it makes up for with a certain air of a bygone era romance that's all-consuming for the protagonists and swept me away right along with them.

The depth and breadth of Vik’s love for Cal was powerful and affecting due in large part to Saracen’s crafting of him. The dialogue stays true to the time period and all of the characters are compelling to varying degrees. The narrative was engaging and the world building, though I think it goes without saying at this point, was fascinating.

If you’re a fan of historical romance, In the City by the Lake shouldn't be missed. It's a remarkable achievement from new to me author Taylor Saracen; one that has put her on my radar.

A copy was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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