In Ernest Mandel’s Delightful Murder: A Social History of the Crime Story, the esteemed Belgian Marxist argues that the police procedural is, by its very nature, inherently right-wing. The genre, argues Mandel, is an exercise where, “Revolt against private property becomes individualized. With motivation no longer social, the rebel becomes a thief and murderer.” Modern culture has taken the “social bandit”, best exemplified by Robin Hood, and turned them into paragons of evil whose destruction is a precondition to civilization. It’s worth noting that the immensely lucrative “true crime canon” follows these same rules. Best selling books about “true crime” are tributes to single-minded police agents who take down sociopathic villains. Monsters in the countryside are slain and calm is restored.
I wish Mandel were alive so he could read Joe Allen’s astonishing “true crime” book People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago (Haymarket Books). I hope it would have compelled Mandel to reconsider what the political trajectory and potential of the true crime story can be. I know, as someone who consumes these books like salted cashews, it has for me.
A former Teamster shop steward and Chicago socialist, Allen is no typical true-crime writer. He’s an activist, an advocate and a sort of “people’s detective.” In these unconventional hands, People Wasn’t Made to Burn does nothing less than reinvent the true-crime genre. Instead of being a morality play of good individual vs. evil, Allen, using a raft of primary research, explores a much broader set of crimes. Allen doesn’t indict an individual, inasmuch as he indicts the more shadowed Jim Crow laws that ruled the North. He indicts the horrific housing conditions in post-war Chicago and, finally, a criminal justice system that focuses on individual crimes while systemic ones go unpunished.
The true-crime under exploration is the case of James Hickman. Hickman, a father and laborer, murdered his unarmed landlord, David Coleman, in full view on a Chicago street. On trial and facing the gallows, the reasons for Hickman’s crime spread quickly across the Windy City. Four of Hickman’s children had just burned to death in a fire at Hickman’s building while he was working the night shift. Before this unspeakable tragedy, Coleman had threatened, as was common practice, to force every resident out of the building, even “if it takes fire.” James and his wife Annie Hickman had been complaining about the terrible conditions and Coleman, who was also African-American, said that if they took their grievances to the authorities, “I have a man on the East Side ready to burn the place up.” Allen recounts in painstaking detail, the night of the fire. He takes you inside the subhuman conditions of a rat-infested Chicago “kitchenette apartment.” As the great author of Native Son, Richard Wright, once wrote, “The kitchenette is our prison, our death sentence without a trial.” For the Hickman family, it really was a death sentence, impossible to escape once Coleman decided to smoke them out.