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The Mayor of Maxwell Street by Avery Cunningham
Historical fiction

The Mayor of Maxwell Street


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.

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  • Illustrated icon, Icon_400

    400+ pages

  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Puzzle


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Movieish


  • Illustrated icon, Icon_Glamorous



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.

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The Mayor of Maxwell Street



“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.

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