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Afternoon Shift

Jim Agnew's legacy: 'Crime is my specialty'

(Flickr/Jenni Konrad)

You have never seen his name on the jackets of the many, many books he was essential in bringing to life.

Jim Agnew is the name and he was a lively character on the writers’ saloon circuit for many years until giving up booze nearly two decades ago. But he was ever one of the literary scene’s unseen and unsung masters. He was a researcher and a great one, one of the last of a breed that disdained the ease (and unreliability) of the Internet to dig the old-fashioned way.

Mike Royko called him, simply, “the best crime researcher in America.”

Agnew died on last week and there is an obituary in the Sun-Times Wednesday.

In the wake of his death emerge all manner of memories and appreciations. I recall sitting with him at the bygone Riccardo’s or O’Rourke’s, or the still-thriving Old Town Ale House, and listening to him tell me stories about having gotten to know one of the former cellmates of Nathan Leopold who, along with University of Chicago classmate Richard Loeb, killed 14-year-old Bobby Franks in 1924, in what would be called the “crime of the century.” He told me stories about his neighbor, the legendary con man Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil.

Agnew was, during and after his drinking days, a companionable man; broad-faced and filled with lively patter. Had he been an actor he would have had steady work playing cops. But he could display a thin skin that made him almost Hemingway-esque in his ability to quickly shatter friendships.

Agnew was born in 1945, the son of Irish immigrants. He and his family, which also included brothers Pat and John, lived in Uptown, where his parents ran a rooming house which was the family home. He held a lot of jobs but his passion was of a dark sort.

“Crime is my specialty,” he would often say.

Chicagoan Bill Zehme, the author of such bestsellers as The Way You Wear Your Hat, about Frank Sinatra, and the biographies of Jay Leno, Regis Philbin and Andy Kaufman. Working now on the highly-anticipated, upcoming biography of Johnny Carson, Zehme says, “I always saw him as a beautiful ‘old-school’ cross between bloodhound and bulldog. I guess what he really was was a magical literary leprechaun who popped up in the lives of a fortunate band of author people that either knew not what to make of him or realized he had strange miraculous powers never to be taken lightly.”

That “band of author people” Vincent Bugliosi (Helter Skelter) and Nick Pileggi (Wiseguy and Casino).

He operated his own delightful literary website, The site still lives and there you can get a better sense of this remarkable, even unique, man. Ever more comfortable in the background, he filled his site with quotes from writers he admired.

Among them you’d discover this, which could be applied to the life of Jim Agnew, it comes from Raymond chandler, “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”


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