Tracy Tonkinson is a fellow Canadian author who has a deep love for history. In this interview she explains what drew her to write about late 19th century Chicago. We also discuss her character Drew McMillan, who made himself known to Tracy, and had such an effect on her, that she’s now writing a second mystery series featuring this Pinkerton agent.
In the introduction I mention that podcast guest Cassidy Salem will have the next book in her Adina Donati series available next week. You can learn more about Dying for Data here.
You can also click here to watch the interview on YouTube.
Transcription of Interview with Tracy Tonkinson
Alexandra: Hi, Mystery readers. I’m Alexandra Amor, this is It’s a Mystery podcast and I’m here today with Tracy Tonkinson. Hi, Tracy.
Tracy: Hi, Alexandra, how are you?
Alexandra: Very well, how are you?
Tracy: Good, thank you.
Alexandra: Good, excellent, so let me introduce you to our listeners.
Tracy Tonkinson is the author of “Madman” and of “Poison,” the first two books in her “Diamond And Doran Mystery Series,” which follow rookie cop Arthur Diamond and the veteran sergeant Billy Doran as they clean up 19th century Chicago.
Also out soon is “Argent,” which is the first book in the “Drew McMillan Case Files” series and this one follows the early career of Pinkerton agent, Drew McMillan.
Let’s begin talking about Diamond and Doran.
Let’s start by talking about Sergeant Billy Doran. Tell us a bit about him. He’s an Irish Catholic living in Chicago.
Tracy: He is, yeah, and he’s a 20-year veteran of the Chicago Police Force and he’s pretty much getting to the end of his rope with the job and he wants desperately to retire but the fly in the ointment is he’s a widower with five daughters and they all need supporting at this point, so the job is not going anywhere any time soon.
We meet him at the point where he’s just lost a very good friend and unfortunately he ends up being, what’s the word you would use, I guess, encumbered with a rookie that he doesn’t want, and the rookie is Arthur Diamond.
Alexandra: Right, and we’ll come back to the loss that Billy has experienced in a few minutes.
Tell us a little bit too about Arthur Diamond and how he ended up in Chicago.
Tracy: Arthur Diamond was actually born in Toronto and he lived in Toronto until he was 10, where under very unfortunate circumstances, he lost his mother and for a couple of years he was floating around, pretty badly treated, and ran away at 12 to join the British Army. He found himself in the UK and joined as a boy soldier and then he ended up in the Sudan at a very important time in British history and Sudanese history and found himself the recipient of the Victoria Cross.
And it’s part of the backstory, I won’t ruin that for everybody, but he’s not the happiest Victoria Cross recipient you’ve ever seen, probably suffering from a good deal of what we would know as PTSD right now. Part of his main drive is that he’s lost his family and he’s looking for a replacement.
He found it in the British Army, and then when he gets invalided out of course he’s lost that family so now he’s looking for another one. He finds himself in Chicago and joins the Chicago Police Force, which is where we find him as a rookie at the beginning of “Mad Men”.
Alexandra: Right, okay. And we should mention too that “Mad Men” is free.
Tracy: It is, yup.
Alexandra: So people can sign up and get that at your website.
Tracy: Yes, you can, it’s only free on the website, it’s not free on Amazon at this point so if you want it for free, then you have to sign up, I’m sorry!
Alexandra: No, that’s perfect that’s great. And then people will be able to keep in touch with you and learn about the further escapades of Diamond and Doran
Tracy: Absolutely they will, yeah.
Alexandra: Let’s talk about the way that you’ve interwoven Chicago history with these characters. And tell us about the loss that Doran has experienced and how that does connect with actual history.
Tracy: Okay, well the loss that Doran suffers is of his best friend, and his best friend is a police officer called Matthew Deegan, and Matthew Deegan was a real Chicago police officer who was killed in a bombing at the Haymarket Square in Chicago in May in 1886, which is the inciting incident.
We pick up the story the day after the bombing. Billy is in mourning for his friend, who was the only officer killed that day by the bomb. Many officers were actually shot, as it turned out, by each other, subsequently.
So, you know, not the best day in Chicago police history. What we actually pick up on is the day after the bombing and so Billy’s dealing with a loss, dealing with lack of staff, he’s dealing with his own grief, and he’s obviously got to find whoever did this atrocious act. So he’s a busy boy at this point, and not a very happy bunny either.
Alexandra: No. And the bombing at Haymarket Square was a real event?
Tracy: It was a real event. And it was reading that that actually fired up the idea for the book because although subsequently they did hang, I think half a dozen anarchists for the bombing, they never proved that any of the people that they hung actually threw the bomb.
I thought, well, what if it was somebody that they didn’t actually catch? That plays a fairly important part in the story and that gets rolled into other things as well like corruption and that sort of stuff. It gave me a springboard into quite a lot of issues that you could pick up on, that seemed to be unfortunately universal. You’ve got a little terrorism, you’ve got a little corruption, you’ve got grief, and all kinds of other things thrown in.
Alexandra: Yes, fascinating.
What was it that drew you to Chicago specifically? Because you live in Ontario.
Tracy: I do, I do, I live about 100 kilometers outside Toronto so that’s a plane ride away but it’s not that close. Well, initially I think I was drawn to Chicago by the Haymarket incident. But the more I read about Chicago in this period, which is…I’m writing from 1886 onwards.
It seemed to me it was a period in Chicago history that was just absolutely filled with entrepreneurism. It’s the time when they’re building the first skyscrapers in America, the ingenuity of the people and the sort of the fast pace of the life that they develop, it turns it into this sort of amazing microcosm of life. So it was the kind of thing where you could put anything in there and it would work.
And it’s also a time of Chicago history where physical things are changing. The streets are changing all the time, they’re plowing things down and putting new things up and it was pretty exciting stuff. So that causes one or two problems when you’re doing research because you have to make sure that between 1886 and 1888, you haven’t planted a building there that didn’t exist, before it was built and all that kind of stuff.
I mean, you have a bit of poetic license on either side but you don’t want to be putting in water towers where there was nothing or not having street cars when they had street cars and street lighting, where they didn’t have street lighting and that kind of thing. But you know what, it all adds to the fun of it, is in the research, as much as in the writing to some degree.
Alexandra: Do you enjoy doing research?
Tracy: The problem with research for me is stopping. I interviewed the Canadian writer Charlotte Gray a while ago, and I asked her about research because her books are fact-based, they’re not fiction as such, but she always manages to get the life interest in there, it’s almost a personal story. And I said to her, you know, “What do you do about research?” And she said, “I don’t do the research until after I’ve got the story.”
My advice would be like write your story, and then go and find out what you need to know to get it right. And that’s actually good advice because otherwise you…well I could certainly bury myself for years and years and years just in research.
Alexandra: Yes, that’s a fantastic tip. I’ve never heard anyone phrase it that way before and so many of the authors that I interview do say they can disappear down a rabbit hole with research, it’s so easy.
When I was looking into your books and the history of Chicago, I learned a little bit about the fire in 1871, which was such a big deal in Chicago at that time.
When you start writing in 1886, is the city still affected by the fire?
Tracy: Oh yeah, very much so. The thing that they did manage to do was to get the damage limitation under control quite quickly. But then you’ve got all kinds of new things going up. So this is the reason for the skyscrapers going up. It’s like the old Chicago burned down so easily, now we have to do something about that.
As they are going through the 1880s they’re developing things like fireproof buildings. I think the first fireproof theatre was actually in Chicago, but that came a little bit later than the period that I’m writing about currently. But it’s still before you get to the 1890s, they have that.
It’s that kind of innovation out of disaster which is part of the attraction for me. It’s like these people are just so brilliant in the face of something that could’ve been absolutely crushing and devastating. They dusted themselves off and went, “Ah let’s just build it a different way.” And it’s like, “Yes!” You know, you want to be involved with those kind of people right.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah wow, so that spirit of human endeavor and picking ourselves up when we fall, is such a great metaphor for someone’s life as well.
And looking back to what we said about Billy Doran that his life has been deeply, deeply affected by what’s going on and he’s having to rebuild himself it sounds like.
Tracy: Yes. His wife has only been dead about four years at this point too. So he’s suddenly faced with this specter of having to raise these girls that he’s had nothing to do with really in all that time, I mean, he’s their dad obviously, but their mother has been doing all the raising and the youngest I think was about 12 or 13 when her mother died.
He’s dealing with being mom and dad and trying to work out how he can change himself into a softer kind of person, instead this sort of, you know, gruff kind of guy that he’s been all these years because that’s all he’s had to be. He hasn’t had to be anything else really, so that’s an interesting metamorphosis for him.
Alexandra: He’s having to develop another whole side of his self, his personality, to take care of these girls. Wow, what an interesting challenge for a character that just lights me up.
You’ve got this other book that we talked about that’s coming up shortly, “Argent.”
Tracy: Yep, “Argent” has been out about a week now. I lose track of these things, I should know them I know. Once a book is done and I’m onto the next one.
“Argent” takes us back about 10 or 15 years to the 1870s. And we meet the hero of “Argent,” actually in “Madman.” And it’s a Pinkerton agent called Drew McMillan and in “Madman” Drew McMillan is middle-aged, probably early 40s and so he’s an experienced agent by this time, and he’s fairly senior in Chicago at that point.
But when we meet him in “Argent” he’s literally doing his first solo case, he’s been a Pinkerton agent for four years, but he’s always been under supervision. And so he gets sent to do a favor for another agency that Allan Pinkerton has asked him to undertake and he has personal and professional issues from there on in so we follow him as he works his way into that situation.
Alexandra: Oh, interesting.
For those who don’t know, tell us a little about Pinkertons; their origin and what they are when he’s working with them.
Tracy: Allan Pinkerton was effectively Abraham Lincoln’s spymaster during the American Civil War. And after the Civil War, Pinkerton setup an international detective agency.
What he did was, he took the people that had helped him during the civil war and soldiers, you know, that he felt had got what was needed and he took on all cases. He would take on everything from chasing down errant husbands to bank robberies, to murder. And the Pinkerton agents could go all over the United States and a few of them actually were international as well.
And so when Drew is sent away, first he’s sent to Kansas City, Missouri. And then he ends up in a little town in Arizona, which is Arizona territories in the 1870s. A bit of a wild and wooly place. And so Pinkertons were, you either loved them or you hated them in the period.
If you owned factories, you loved the Pinkertons, because parts of their other duties were involved in things like strike breaking. So if you were an anarchist or a working man or somebody who just wanted to get a better wage for a day’s work, the Pinkertons were not exactly your favorite people. But generally speaking, mostly they’re for the detective work and the other part of their activates are less well known, unless you’re part of a labor movement.
Alexandra: What drew you to write about this character and to go back in time to write about him?
Tracy: Drew wasn’t really supposed to be a character in “Madman” at all. But he was one of those characters, that happens to me more often than I’d like, which are people that just pop up out of nowhere and you probably know yourself. You’re writing something and you’ve got a vague idea of where it’s going and it’s fine, and then this character will pop up from nowhere and go “Why are you going down there, you need to come down here with me” and it’s like “I don’t want to go down there with you, this is going to take me off the path and I won’t know where I’m going.” “Just follow”.
I followed Drew McMillan and in “Madman” the thing that attracted me to him was that he had a playful side to him, which was good. Because Billy was such a serious, dour, miserable character that Drew McMillan, as his old buddy from the Chicago P.D., because Drew has a short period with the Chicago P.D., but he had a good sense of humour and he always managed to lighten things. But he also was very skilled in things like disguise. So in the book, there is actually a scene which brings that out, I won’t say any more than that because it gives something away.
He became a presence in “Madman” and then became even more of a presence in “Poison” and having used him twice, it was clear he wasn’t going away. Then I thought, well he must have started somewhere, what was he like as a young man? He was obviously fairly impressive or Allan Pinkerton wouldn’t have picked him, so let’s go back and just investigate.
Then I had to give him a back story, because the other thing is, when we meet him in “Poison”, he’s a bachelor and you think, “How does a 40 year old guy who’s obviously quite charismatic end up being a bachelor?” What’s his story there?
I went back to when he’s I think he’s 24 in “Argent” and we learn a little bit about his backstory. That’s why I decided to go back and pick Drew McMillan, because he really was the most interesting I think of all the characters that have popped up out of nowhere.
Alexandra: Bantastic. And so one last question just before we start to wrap up.
“Poison” is the second book in the “Diamond and Doran” series, and are you working on a third now?
Tracy: I am. I’m probably about two thirds of the way through the first draft of the third book, which is called “Vendetta.” I’m not sure when that will make its appearance, if it goes reasonably well, maybe by Christmas, but if not then I’m afraid people are going to have to wait. So far so good. It’s going roughly in the direction that I had hoped it would and so with a little bit of luck and a following wind I might actually get that done before the end of the year.
Alexandra: Do you have plans to write any more about Drew in the other series?
Tracy: Yep, I already have the second book, which is probably in the mid-point of the first draft. It’s called “San Francisco.” The series of books will be named after the cities that he’s in, so that’s not much of a stretch really, but hopefully they’ll all be different kinds of stories. They’re all obviously mysteries and so on, but when you follow the history, brings out the character of the cities, and it brings out all kinds of incidents that you were never aware of and that’s the joy of it for me. Exploring all that real life and insert my characters into the real life, so that hopefully when the readers read the books, they’re excited by it as I am.
Alexandra: Yes, yeah, oh I’m sure they are. I know that when the author is excited, then usually the reader is excited too.
Tracy: Let’s hope so.
Alexandra: Let’s hope so, exactly.
Why don’t you tell our listeners where they can find your books.
Tracy: Okay, if you go to my website, which is, all lower-case and all one word, diamondanddoranmysteries.com, you can sign up there and if you sign up, you can unsubscribe as well, but if you subscribe then you can download a free copy of “Madman.”
You get the whole book, it’s not a little portion or anything and then for those people who like what they read there, you can also get the first chapter of “Poison,” and if you like what you see there you can get the first chapter of “Argent” as well. So there’s at least things that you can get your teeth into if you’re interested and if you like what you see, then by all means go and find out what it’s all about.
Alexandra: Yes, absolutely, and they’re all available online?
Tracy: They’re all available at Amazon, yep. So amazon.com, amazon.ca, .co,.uk, and 150 other places too.
Alexandra: Perfect, oh that’s great. Well thank you so much for being here with me today Tracy, I really appreciate it.
Tracy: Thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure.
Alexandra: Take care.
Tracy: You too, bye bye.