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The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham

Historical fiction

The Mayor of Maxwell Street

Debut

We love supporting debut authors. Congrats, Avery Cunningham, on your first book!

by Avery Cunningham

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Quick take

A Black debutante working undercover as a journalist is thrust into prominence and danger in Prohibition-era Chicago.

Good to know

  • Illustrated icon, 400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Puzzle

    Puzzle

  • Illustrated icon, Movieish

    Movieish

  • Illustrated icon, Glamorous

    Glamorous

Synopsis

The year is 1921, and America is burning. A fire of vice and virtue rages on every shore, and Chicago is its beating heart.

Nelly Sawyer is the daughter of the “wealthiest Negro in America,” whose affluence catapulted his family to the heights of Black society. After the unexpected death of her only brother, Nelly becomes the premier debutante overnight. But Nelly has aspirations beyond society influence and marriage. For the past year, she has worked undercover as an investigative journalist, sharing the achievements and tribulations of everyday Black people living in the shadow of Jim Crow. Her latest assignment thrusts her into the den of a dangerous vice lord: the so-called Mayor of Maxwell Street.

Born in rural Alabama to a murdered biracial couple, Jay Shorey knows firsthand what it means to be denied a chance at the American dream. When a tragic turn of fate gave Jay a rare path out, he took it without question. He washed up on Chicago’s storied shores and forged his own way to the top of the city’s underworld, running Chicago’s swankiest speakeasy, where the rich and famous rub elbows with gangsters and politicians alike.

When Nelly’s and Jay’s paths cross, she recruits him to help expose the Mayor and bring about lasting change in a corrupt city. But Jay also introduces a whole new world to Nelly, one where her horizons can extend beyond the confines of her ivory tower. Trapped between the monolith of Jim Crow, the inflexible world of the Black upper class, and the violence of Prohibition-era Chicago, Jay and Nelly work together and stoke the flames of a love worth fighting for.

Free sample

Get an early look from the first pages of The Mayor of Maxwell Street.

The Mayor of Maxwell Street

PROLOGUE

THE BALLAD OF JIMMY BLUE-EYES

“What do you see?”

Jimmy saw decay. Mold, and termites, and the final days of a once-living thing. But he also saw a place of meditation. A place for stormy evenings in front of a dwindling fire, surrounded by those who love you. He saw the original architect’s grand vision, and he saw his absolute grief.

Like so many great plantation homes littering the South in 1915, White Pine was designed and built by a slave. The architect was told to create the most beautiful house in Alabama, and that he certainly did. But never once had he been invited inside. Now, all had fallen to ruin and desolation. As forgotten as the architect himself, who couldn’t even claim his own name.

“I see mahogany,” Jimmy said of the coffered ceiling above them. “Amber varnish. Twelve inches at its thickest point. We may be able to save a quarter of it.”

Uncle groaned, a sound that preluded long hours and grueling labor. Behind his blind, unseeing eyes, he carried calculations and a log of the region’s best lumberyards. Information inherent in a woodworker of his skill.

“A week to bring down,” he said. “Over a month for the mahogany. Long job. He won’t pay.”

“He always pays,” Jimmy assured him. “Or face the wrath of Old Man Levi.”

“You overestimate the influence of that old man.”

“He always pays,” Jimmy repeated. And he always protested. And he always delayed. But their work was worth payment, in the end.

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Why I love it

Until I read The Mayor of Maxwell Street, my knowledge of 1920s Chicago consisted solely of what is depicted in the iconic musical of the same name. When I saw that this novel was set during the same time period, with its enticing blend of glamor and corruption, I was immediately intrigued.

The Mayor of Maxwell Street stars Nellie Sawyer, daughter of an extremely successful horse breeder, and newly minted heir to his empire after the unexpected death of her brother. But while the rest of the Black upper class see a society woman finally making her debut, what they don’t know is that Nellie has been leading a double life. For the past year, she has been working as an undercover journalist, and her next assignment is her most dangerous so far: to bring down the head of a major Chicago mob boss, otherwise known as the “Mayor of Maxwell Street.”

The Mayor of Maxwell Street introduced me to a whole new side of Prohibition-era Chicago. This novel perfectly captures the simmering sense of distrust pervasive in the 1920s, a shunning of authority amidst rampant inflation and the horrors of Jim Crow. But it is also a portrait of Black life, of romance and passion, of a determined young woman ready to fight her odds. This book raises fascinating questions about class, justice, and love. More than anything, it made me think, and I highly recommend it.

Member ratings (3,687)

  • Carrie B.

    Colonial Heights, VA

    BOTY finalist! Rich in history, description and experience- the author doesn’t miss a beat in transporting us reader’s into 1920s Chicago. Wish the ending had come together a bit more nicely, but 4/5

  • Ashley P.

    Golden, CO

    One of the best books I’ve read recently. I couldn’t put it down. I’m thinking about reading it all over again! This book has it all, mystery, romance, high society, gangsters, race in the 1920s.

  • Joy A.

    Starkville, MS

    An absolutely dazzling story of Nelly entering Chicago’s society while undergoing the grief in walks a dark horse and a prince, a city full of secrets & dealings. I loved every second of it. MUST READ

  • Rachel T.

    Cincinnati, OH

    This is a beautifully written wild ride! She does a great job of pulling you into Nelly’s world and giving life & dimension to all the characters. Loved this and hope to read another of her books soon

  • Laurianne L.

    Portland, ME

    Wonderful.The narrative is funny, sad &thrilling.I didn’t know what to expect from one chapter to next.The characters all came alive .&kept me thinking after I set the book down. Characters came alive

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Historical fiction
View all
Lady Tan’s Circle of Women
The Women
The Lion Women of Tehran
Shelterwood
All We Were Promised
Spitting Gold
The Mayor of Maxwell Street
The Great Divide
The Storm We Made
The Disappearance of Astrid Bricard
Lessons in Chemistry
The Frozen River
What We Kept to Ourselves
The River We Remember
Take My Hand
The Last Russian Doll
The First Ladies
The House Is On Fire
River Sing Me Home
The People We Keep
The Attic Child
Malibu Rising
The Book of Longings
Hester
The Final Revival of Opal & Nev
The Nightingale
Daisy Jones & The Six
The Lincoln Highway
The Secret Book of Flora Lea
Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?
The Circus Train
Peach Blossom Spring
Hang the Moon
Booth
The Good Left Undone
Sisters in Arms
The Perishing
The Postmistress of Paris
The Family
Things We Lost to the Water
The Spectacular
Still Life
Send for Me
The Magnolia Palace
The Bookbinder
China Room
This Tender Land
Atomic Love
All the Light We Cannot See
The Vanishing Half
Outlawed
The Four Winds
Independence
The Fountains of Silence
Libertie
Queen of Thieves
The Great Believers
The Clockmaker's Daughter
A Gentleman in Moscow
The Great Alone
The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
The Paris Hours
The Heart's Invisible Furies
Rules of Civility
Circling the Sun
The Moor's Account
Jacqueline in Paris
Don't Cry for Me
The Christie Affair
Bloomsbury Girls
The Wedding Dress Sewing Circle
Bronze Drum