The Quad-Cities is steeped in history and few characters dominate that history more than John Looney.
In 2007, Richard Hamer and I wrote a book about the notorious history of one of the nation’s biggest crime bosses. As a result, we are often pulled into projects about him. The “Dead Files” TV show in which there was speculation Looney’s ghost was haunting a local house was one. The 75th anniversary project by the Tri-Cities Cinema and Video Club was another recent effort.
But I had not heard about the new book “Rock Island Lines” by Dean Klinkenberg until I read about it in this paper. Mr. Klinkenberg is a St. Louis-based travel writer and this is the first mystery in the Frank Dodge series to be set in Mississippi River towns.
Mr. Klinkenberg acknowledged our book “Citadel of Sin: The John Looney Story” and facts from it are accurately used to set the scene for his mystery which takes place in present day.
The premise of the book is intriguing: descendents of Looney-era characters who were wronged by the gangster, take revenge on a man they believe to be Looney’s grandson, as well as the out-of-wedlock child of Queen of the Prostitutes Helen Van Dale and Police Chief Tom Cox, and descendants of Looney gang members involved in the murder of saloon keeper Bill Gabel.
The issue I have with anything about Looney is if it is not historically accurate. There are plenty of stories, myths and urban legends about the man without modern-day efforts contributing to historical inaccuracy. That was one reason Rich Hamer and I finally got our book out of the planning stage -- to counteract the embellishments portrayed in the movie “Road to Perdition” which was loosely based on Looney’s life.
In the case of “Rock Island Lines” the inclusion of historical passages to frame the story actually helps to reaffirm some of the true history of John Looney. They purportedly are excerpts from an earlier Frank Dodge novel on Looney.
The modern-day mystery drama strays far enough from fact to never be confused as anything other than fiction. Mr. Klinkenberg’s story unfolds in such places as the Locked Down Tavern, Schnitzel Haus in Moline, Rolling Rapids Brewery, the River View Motor Inn in Bettendorf, Diving Duck Brewery, Donna’s Diner, Suiter Park in Moline and the Blackhawk Casino. When it comes to inserting some local flavor, my favorites are the Dickey College of Chiropractic and the place where its students hang out, The Crooked Spine.
The only factual error -- and it was likely an intended mashing of the truth -- was that no one had ever heard from descendants of John Looney. Mr. Hamer and I are aware of many and one actually made the trek to the Quad-Cities to find out more about his ancestor. When we wrote “Citadel of Sin” we intentionally ended the story with Looney’s granddaughter, Kathaleene, who later married and had children.
She was the daughter of Looney’s daughter, Ursula Hamblin, who we found did everything in her power to insulate future generations from knowledge about their notorious patriarch. No offspring that we are aware of had a life of crime.
Mr. Klinkenberg used the premise that little was known about Looney descendants to create some of his own. Central to the story is Miguel Ramirez, son of Ursula Hamblin’s housekeeper (wink, wink), who is murdered early in the book. Dodge becomes a suspect.
What I like about the book is that it’s an easy read of about 250 pages. I would liked to have seen more character development which would have helped the reader keep straight the many people who are woven in and out of the story.
But perhaps the best thing about “Rock Island Lines” is the message it sends readers about the Quad-Cities.
“Most places (in the Quad-Cities) I’ve visited I’ve found friendly, outgoing people who were eager to chat and help. ... When you can visit a place just a few times a year and have people greet you by your first name when you walk in the door, you know you should probably be visiting more often. I have, and I will. You should too,” Mr. Klinkenberg writes in the book’s Acknowledgements.
The sentiment is then reinforced in the story by Frank Dodge.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here, that’s true. I don’t think folks here really appreciate what they have: big-city amenities without all the big city problems,” Dodge tells Steve DeSmet, a reporter for the Moline Herald.
“Everyone loves the river. You can’t beat the views, the Mississippi cutting right through the middle of town, flanked by bluffs on both sides, a storied island in the middle of town, good restaurants, good architecture. You don’t know how many places would love to have what you do here,” Dodge tells DeSmet.
Finally John Looney may have done something positive for the Quad-Cities. He’s at least partially responsible for the book and those glowing endorsements.
Roger Ruthhart is managing editor of The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.