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Sin in the Second City

Rarely do I get to the end of a book and wish that it had still more chapters. On the rare occasion when this does happen, the feeling usually passes quickly. When my longing for a book persists, I know I really liked the book.

By this measure (as well as any other), I loved the book Sin in the Second City. For weeks after I’d finished it, I found myself wishing I had a stack of books just like it waiting to be read. Congratulations to Karen Abbott on writing a fantastic first book.

I first discovered the book, believe it or not, on the Freakonomics blog! Unbeknownst to me, Melissa convinced Karen Abbott to do a Q&A with us. I read that Q&A and promptly bought the book on my next trip to the bookstore. My primary reason for reading it was “business,” since Sudhir Venkatesh and I are working on a project concerning modern-day street prostitutes in Chicago. As such, I thought it would be important to learn something about the city’s prostitution in an earlier age.

I had no idea that the story would be so scintillating, with an amazing cast of (real-life) characters. The heroes are Minna and Ada Everleigh, enterprising sisters who move to Chicago and start a brothel like none the planet has ever seen. Visitors are entertained by a pianist playing a piano made of gold that would cost hundreds of thousands in today’s dollars, while the prostitutes quote poetry and Greek. Their brothel, called the Everleigh Club, becomes a destination for not only the city’s finest men, but also visitors from around the globe. (If I understand it correctly, the phrase “to get laid” is a shortened version of the original saying “to get Everleighed.”)

One of the most famous prostitutes at the Club was the world-renowned Suzy Poon Tang (who gave life to the slang term, I believe) sporting her legendary tattoo. Corrupt local politicians included Bathhouse John Coughlin and “Hinky DinkKenna. On the other side, you had Minister Ernest Bell, who devoted his life to fighting prostitution and became a celebrity in the process. The fight between “good” and “evil” is one of the most interesting aspects of the story, especially because it is often unclear exactly who is on which side.

I don’t often endorse books, but this one is fantastic.