Robert W Smith’s new novel is available today!

To Pledge Allegiance is another “Windy City” novel, but this one is set in 1917 Chicago. Rumors of war are filling the newspapers and the streets. The atmosphere is one of unrest and violence. How will this affect Conor Dolan and his family? The blurb will give some answers.

Assassination, espionage, war, and vigilante violence. Welcome to Chicago in 1917.

Within this cauldron of intrigue and deceit, live nearly half a million Irish and German American immigrants, among them Irish-born lawyer Conor Dolan and his wife Maureen. The Dolans are among thousands of immigrants marked as “hyphenated Americans,” their reluctance to support the war cry branding them “enemy aliens.”

When one of the legendary Chicago Newsboys takes a lethal bullet from a German Luger during a warehouse break-in, his mysterious companion escapes, and Conor is determined to find the killer.  He discovers instead a link between the burglary and the murder of a prominent Chicago arms broker with ties to the Allied powers and possibly the mob. Despite warnings from a powerful group of government-backed vigilantes and a suspicious lack of cooperation from the police, Conor presses on at his own peril to root out the boy’s killer.

Was it a German agent? An Allied agent? The mob? Or maybe even the police themselves by some deceitful plan? The closer he gets to the answer, the greater the danger to those he loves.

Read Excerpt

Chapter One

The alley hadn’t changed much since Conor’s first chaotic days in Chicago back in 1903 but the tenants had. Nearly all the major papers once operated around the alley with loading docks and staircases where the newsboys would load up with wet papers and hit the cobblestones until the next edition rolled off the presses. On busy news days, the youngsters would often hawk the extra editions late into the evening.

But Chicago had become the beating heart of the Midwest, a city fueled by invention and technology and innovation and driven by ambition. As the city evolved and expanded, so did the newspapers. More readers meant bigger buildings and wider circulation logistics to meet the need. As a result, many of the newspaper buildings had fanned out up and down the river, newsboys in tow. But the old “alley” remained the beating heart of the newsboy community with four of the largest dailies still in residence. Lefty Hawk was known affectionately by the occupants, which included a few young girls, as “Da Earl of da Alley.”

The alley was still electric with excitement, the exuberance of energy and youth on exhibit in half a dozen languages and a hundred smells. Wagons and motor trucks vied for space through the narrow passage, producing non-stop congestion and heated arguments. Polish, Italian and German streamed from every nook and cranny. Everyone appeared engaged in something frantic, if not illegal. Conor could see crap games with coins littering the cobblestones, penny pitching, animated arguments, banjo playing, even an older boy standing atop a crate giving a lesson in what appeared to be picking pockets. The alley still served the loading docks of some legendary Chicago papers, including the Herald and the Evening Post.

They stopped and Lefty walked over to a police call-box attached to a dilapidated, one-story brick façade under a hand-painted sign reading, “Newsboy Resort and Spa.” After a brief conversation, he turned back to Conor and Miss Bensini. Motioning up the alley, he said, “Come on. Let’s have a rest in my little office. You gotta wait ‘til it’s safe to walk the streets. There’s three peace protesters dead so far on State Street.”

Lefty’s face was weathered by the outdoors, browned from the sun and prematurely wrinkled, but the protruding nose and deep-set, gray eyes helped give the raven-haired cop the look of a prowling wolf. His two missing front teeth remained a dominant and disarming feature that instantly morphed the wolf into a lap-loving puppy whenever it appeared. They’d never spoken of Lefty’s ethnicity, but Conor had always pictured him as a descendant of Lakota warriors. Lefty probably had no idea. He had started his life as a newsboy around the age of eight and his natural leadership qualities blossomed from day one.

The cop’s “office” was an old kitchen table in a shed, complete with an obviously expensive but worn-out sofa, likely pitched into the street by one of the industrial barons on Prairie Avenue. The woman dropped onto the sofa with her last bit of energy as Lefty handed her a glass of fresh water. “Thank you both,” she said while trying to assess the damage to her clothing.

 “You had a close call,” said Conor. “Better sit for a while ‘til you get your strength back.”

“I will.”

Lefty handed her a moist towel and she dabbed it along her forehead and the back of her neck.  “Were you marching in the peace rally?”

“No. I was on my way home from shopping and found myself caught up in it.”

Two boys appeared in the doorway, obviously looking for Lefty. One was older than most, maybe seventeen, and politely removed his cap upon spotting a lady in the shed. A serious looking lad he was, lanky and rough but well-nourished with fair skin and ruby cheeks.

“Whatchoo need, Mumbles?” Lefty asked impatiently. “Can it wait?”

“We was just w-w-w-wonderin’ how long dis ruckus on State Street gonna last? We ain’t sold no p-p-p-papers since it started. We got rent t’ pay, expenses too. Where da hell da c-c-cops at? Fuckin’ thing been blowing up fer hours.”

“Watch your mouth, Boy,” Lefty growled.

“Sorry, Ma’am.”

“I ain’t got no clue when the streets will clear,” Lefty admitted. “They already knew about it by the time I called it in, so they shoulda got wagon loads of cops in there two hours ago. Can’t never know what’s going on downtown.” He motioned toward the door and added, “I’ll find you in a bit.”

Conor suspected what the comment about downtown meant but let the remark pass. Instead, he said, “I never saw that kid.”

“He’s been with us quite a while,” Lefty replied. “Mother was a housekeeper at some brothel in the Southside Levee, died when Mumbles was six or seven. That’s when he came to us. He left us a couple of years ago for a job running a carousel or something at Riverview Park up north. He came back last year but I didn’t ask no questions. He’ll tell us about it when he’s ready. Good boy, but he sometimes keeps seedy company. I think he has another sideline.”

“What does that mean?”

“His special talent is climbing up walls and drainpipes, squeezing through narrow openings. He’s popular with some of the local boosters, burglars and such.”

Conor said. “That’s a risky sideline. By the way, who were the hooligans with the flag armbands?”

“I’ll be looking into that,” Lefty replied. “This is the second time they’ve attacked a peace demonstration near my beat and similar incidents have been reported around the country.”

Chicago and the Midwest had long been the beating heart of the anti-war movement, with its many socialist-leaning labor organizations and the outsized presence of German and Irish immigrant communities. But the Lake Michigan wind was now blowing toward a dark and violent place, and today’s events signaled an imminent crisis.

The administration was calling it the “preparedness campaign” and it was gaining steam every day. President Wilson was expanding the navy and proposing legislation for a national draft. Ever since the Lusitania sinking, the American people had been slowly piling on board the war wagon and it seemed Wilson himself, although officially still neutral, was at the reins. The sparks were everywhere. The submarine sinkings kept ticking up the death toll and the Russians were being routed everywhere.

The anti-war coalition, once led by the elite industrialists, was in tatters, to the point that support for neutrality had all but disappeared or was confined to the privacy of Irish saloons or whispered conversations among Marxists, Socialists, intellectuals, pro-German elements and conscientious objectors. Wilson had even formally rejected an embargo on arms sales to the Allies and the industrialists were cashing in. In the current climate, today’s demonstration had been a bold and dangerous venture.

Before departing, Conor handed the woman his law firm’s business card. “Well, under the circumstances, Miss Bensini, I think it prudent that I escort you home.”

Lefty was having none of it. This was his territory. “Not necessary, Counselor. I’ll grab a couple of the bigger boys to get her home safe.”

Conor decided to take an indirect route home to avoid further incidents. Maureen would have learned of the Zimmerman Telegram by now and would no doubt be eager to express her opinions. He’d need to brief her on this most interesting day. There was a violent storm raging across the Atlantic and headed straight for his Bridgeport neighborhood in the heart of Chicago. But two questions burdened his thoughts on the ride to Bridgeport. Who was directing those thugs with flag armbands and where were the cops today while Rome burned?

Robert's Notes

The first thing my readers will notice with To Pledge Allegiance is that several of the main characters from  A Long Way from Clare inhabit the pages, twelve years older if not wiser. I am ready for the question: “So why don’t you call it a sequel?”

My instinctive answer would be, “Because I can call it whatever I want,” but rudeness won’t sell books. Besides, I never officially answered that question for myself, so let’s do it together. First, It ain’t no sequel. It’s twelve years later; the people have changed; the world has changed. TPA stands alone, but if you prefer to call it a sequel (quietly), knock yourself out.

Next, I didn’t want to leave this period in Chicago’s history. Edwardian Chicago bubbles with regrets and tragedies of the past, not to mention glimpses of our future. Every door I opened into the city’s past while researching the Clare book led to ten doors that would remain locked until now. To finally open those doors brings me great joy, and I hope this novel will shed some historical light on the existential issues of the present day, global, national and local.

I also wrote this book (TPA) because I found myself revisiting the old characters. Did they marry? Are they happy? Kids? How did the immigrants, especially the Irish and Germans, cope with the pervasive wave of aggressive nationalism and fear-based racism inflicted by the constitutional abuses of The American Protective League, a government affiliated vigilante group determined to quash the peace movement in the United States and drive support for America to declare war on Germany. Chicago in 1917 was a caldron of international intrigue and espionage as well as an unforgiving venue for the quality of mercy.

In the end, however, it may be my ow family history that wouldn’t let this story rest. My wife’s grandfather was a Chicago policeman found dead in his uniform in 1914. The family is still divided as to his cause of death. All four of my own grandparents emigrated from Ireland to Chicago at the turn of the century. I try to see the places in my Chicago novels through their eyes. In so doing, I pay humble tribute to their societal contributions and express my gratitude for the opportunities and rewards their tenacity has provided me. I hope you enjoy To Pledge Allegiance. Please, pretty please, leave an Amazon Review.

A Long Way From Clare

Winner of the CIBA 2023 Goethe Award (1st place), the Pencraft Best Book Award (Fall, 2023) for mystery/suspense and a finalist for the 2024 Eric Hoffer Award for literary excellence.

Romance, Kidnapping, and Murder… Will a young Irish lawyer unravel the secrets or die trying?

Conor Dolan, a young Irishman, travels to Chicago in 1903 to visit his older brother; instead, he finds a mystery. His journey sparks a quest to peel away secrets and rediscover a dead sibling he idolized but never really knew as he strives to learn the true meaning of brotherhood.

His search reveals an Irish Republican plot to assassinate a visiting British royal. In the process, he is drawn into an alliance with two women: a mesmerizing Jewish widow and a struggling young Irishwoman. Each teaches Conor existential truths of life and love in her own way.

But the brother he finds may not be the brother he remembers. A Long Way from Clare is a story of Chicago’s early twentieth century immigrants and one man’s struggle with both bigotry and justice in an unforgiving city where no good deed goes unpunished.

Will Conor find the answers he desperately craves? Or will this trip punch a one-way ticket?

Running With Cannibals

Winner of the CIBA’s 2022 Hemingway and Goethe Awards and Finalist for the Foreword INDIES 2022 Book of the Year Award.

An uninformed public manipulated into submission through lies and distortion. A flag, the symbol of a nation’s commitment to justice and equality, weaponized and perverted to conceal all manner of duplicity. Sound familiar? Sure, years after the fact, but what’s it like to reach out and touch history in the moment, to peel back the layers of hyperbole for yourself as a simple soldier? Try the Philippines around the dawn of the Twentieth Century. You might find that “desertion” really means conversion to a noble cause and “enlisting” is just another form of surrender. A careful observer may even conclude that “apostasy” really means finding God. But it will all happen again anyway…

Running with Cannibals is a timely and relevant story of love, honor and race, inspired by actual events from the Philippine-American War, sometimes referred to as “the first Vietnam” (1899-1902). It is more than a war story.

The Best Lie Wins: a Frank Doherty Novel

A few years have passed and routine has returned to Frank’s life, if not boredom, but when Judge Morton Bellamy sentences a young, mob-connected bully to rot in prison, chaos returns.

The Concrete Kingdom: a Frank Doherty Novel

n a fictional Chicago during the early ’90s, all power flows from City Hall, dominated by the Lowry family dynasty.

The Sakhalin Collection

A wave of human misery, Cold War secrets, and a desperate alliance of the brave.