Wednesday, July 15, 2015

A Novel Born of Childhood Nightmares

A Novel Born of Childhood Nightmares


Special to the Register & Bee

Danville novelist and poet John Guzlowski didn’t have to look far for the inspiration for his latest novel “Suitcase Charlie.” The story was as close as his childhood nightmares.
Like most children growing up in the 1950s, Guzlowski was “free-range” long before the parenting term was coined.

“We’d laugh, play tag and hide-and-go-seek, climb on fences, play softball in the nearby park, go to the corner store for an ice cream cone or a chocolate soda. You name it,” Guzlowski recalled. “This was the mid-50s at the height of the baby boom, and there were millions of us kids outside living large and — as my dad liked to say — running around like wild goats.”

He and his family lived in the working-class neighborhood of Chicago called “Humboldt Park” or the “Polish Triangle.” A lot of his neighbors were Holocaust survivors, and Guzlowski and his friends grew up with the residual fear and anger of their parents, plus the stories of their parents, all around them.

Guzlowski’s parents had been slave laborers in Nazi Germany. His mother spent more than two years in forced labor camps, and his father spent four years in Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Guzlowski was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II and came with his parents, Jan and Tekla, and sister, Donna, to the U.S. as displaced persons in 1951.
To escape their parents’ memories, the children played outside, carefree.

Three boys murdered

Carefree, that is until the bodies of three young Chicago boys were found in a shallow ditch after they had seen a matinee in downtown Chicago.

“Everything changed,” Guzlowski said. “For the first time, we kids felt the kind of fear outside the house we had seen inside the house. It shook us up. Where before we hung out on the street corners and played games till late in the evening, now we came home when the first street lights came on … The street wasn’t the safe place it once had been.”

Guzlowski and his friends began watching for the killer of the boys and even gave him a name — “Suitcase Charlie” — and imagined that he carried around a suitcase in which he could haul dead children. Then as the evening shadows fell, a boy would inevitable look down the street, point and whisper, “Suitcase Charlie?”

It was enough to send the boys heading for home.

The memories of the murders that happened when he was 7 stayed with Guzlowski, even if his novel is not about the murders of those three boys.

His novel

“The first murder in the novel is discovered about seven months after those murders. So the detectives in my novel worry that it may be the same killer,” Guzlowski explained. “They talk about how the investigation of the Suitcase Charlie murders is or isn’t like the earlier investigation. Also, people in the neighborhood of the killings wonder about a connection.”

The summary of the novel on Amazon reads as follows:

“On a quiet street corner in a working-class neighborhood of Holocaust survivors and refugees, the body of a little schoolboy is found in a suitcase.

“The grisly crime is handed over to two detectives who carry their own personal burdens, Hank Purcell, a married WWII veteran, and his partner, a wise-cracking Jewish cop who loves trouble as much as he loves the bottle.

“Their investigation leads them through the dark corners and mean streets of Chicago — as more and more suitcases begin appearing. Based on the Schuessler-Peterson murders that terrorized Chicago in the 1950s.”

Remembering the Holocaust

He considers “Suitcase Charlie,” which has some graphic descriptions of violence, an “extension of the horrors of the Holocaust.”

The Holocaust has been at the heart of most of Guzlowski’s writing. His book of poetry, “Third Winter of War: Buchenwald,” was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 2007.

“The killer chooses the area because these people have seen the terrible things that happened during the Holocaust,” he said.

After he wrote his first book, “Language of Mules,” Guzlowski’s friend told him that Guzlowski must be “all Holocausted out,” but that has not been the case. In fact, he a collection of new poems and short prose pieces he has written in the past 10 years about his parents that will soon be published by Aquila Polonica, a publishing house that specializes in publishing works about the Polish World War II experience.

He has recently started writing science fiction, however, and published a flash fiction post-apocalyptic story.

Selling ‘Suitcase Charlie’

He is also focused on selling “Suitcase Charlie,” which is available on in both a print edition and Kindle edition.

What he enjoyed most about writing the book, though, was revisiting his childhood.

“I enjoyed revisiting all the places I grew up in,” he said. “The novel begin on the corner of Evergreen Street in my neighborhood. It was an opportunity for me to revisit Chicago and re-imagine all the buildings. The cops are interviewing people I knew. It was so much fun for me.”

Elzey is a freelance writer for the Danville Register & Bee. She can be reached at

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